By David Ingram and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against Attorney General Eric Holder, the country's top law enforcement official, seeking to obtain documents on a botched operation to link Arizona gun sales to Mexican drug cartels.
The suit likely means the debate over the anti-gun-trafficking operation nicknamed "Fast and Furious" will go on for months, lasting through the U.S. elections on November 6 when Democratic President Barack Obama is likely to face Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Republicans' focus on Fast and Furious has helped to energize gun owners, who are a large and important voting bloc in presidential swing states such as Pennsylvania and tend to vote Republican.
The suit asks for documents Republicans say are critical to their investigation of the operation, but Obama has claimed executive privilege. In June, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to hold Holder in contempt for withholding the documents.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said the lawsuit was necessary because the Obama administration was "stonewalling."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department, which Holder runs, was "always willing to work with the committee."
"Instead the House and the committee have said they prefer to litigate," she said.
Some legal analysts said it should not have taken more than six weeks from the June 28 contempt vote for Republicans to file their suit. Basic elements of the case were contained in the House's citation for contempt, they said.
"Frankly it suggests that they don't expect to win quickly," said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and a former House acting general counsel.
It will take months for the case to work its way through the U.S. District Court and any appeals process that might follow, legal analysts said.
COURT FIGHTS ARE RARE
Document battles between Congress and a presidential administration are common but rarely end up in court, where judges are reluctant to referee.
In 1974 an appeals court granted a U.S. Senate committee's demand for one of Republican President Richard Nixon's tape recordings but the case was later dismissed on other grounds.
In 2008 a judge found in favor of House Democrats who were investigating the firings of U.S. attorneys and wanted testimony and documents from aides to President George W. Bush.
Mitchel Sollenberger, a political scientist who studies Congress at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said house Republicans were probably calculating that is was unlikely the district judge would hear the two sides and make a ruling before the November election.
Some House Republican leaders have been privately skeptical about going forward with legal proceedings for fear of distracting from the party's economic message during the campaign.
Representative Darrell Issa, who led the Republicans' inquiry as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement on Monday there was a Justice Department "cover-up" and Obama was obstructing the truth.
In a Twitter post on Sunday, Issa said the House would be "filing charges" against Holder, using a term that generally applies to criminal cases. The case is civil.
The lawsuit against Holder was assigned on Monday to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee.
However, is unlikely the lawsuit will result in a trial. If Jackson uses the 2008 lawsuit against Bush's aides as a guide, she could require the Justice Department to detail what withheld documents exist and to show why they are privileged.
The sides in the Bush lawsuit eventually reached a compromise without the judge ruling on specific claims of privilege.
The results of a separate investigation of Fast and Furious by the Justice Department's internal watchdog are expected within weeks.
The Justice Department initially said it would wait until the results of a review by the department's inspector general. Later, it retracted an explanation it sent to Congress and said some of the Fast and Furious tactics were improper.
Justice Department officials gave congressional investigators thousands of pages of documents about the trafficking operation, but the House held Holder in contempt of Congress for his refusal to turn over others it considered critical. The department declined to prosecute Holder after he was censured.
The Fast and Furious operation was designed to gather evidence against gun traffickers near the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Issa's committee, prosecutors and agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) avoided cases against low-level gun-buyers in hopes of targeting higher-level traffickers tied to violent drug cartels.
Critics say the strategy amounted to allowing some guns to "walk" into Mexico.
Two weapons listed in a Fast and Furious database were found at the scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot to death in 2010, but it has not been determined whether the weapons contributed to his death. ATF agents did not begin tracking the weapons until three days after their purchase.
Five men are charged in the United States with Terry's murder. According to their indictment, they crossed into Arizona from Mexico in a plan to rob drug traffickers.
The case is Committee on Oversight and Government Reform v Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 12-cv-01332.
(Additing reporting by Susan Heavey and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom)