The US House of Representatives has voted that Eric Holder, the attorney general, is in contempt of Congress as the Republican-led body struck back at President Barack Obama's administration for refusing to turn over documents related to a failed gun-running probe.
Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, became the first sitting attorney general - and the first presidential cabinet member - to be accused of the crime of contempt by the full House.
The vote was mostly along party lines, and it was unclear whether the move would be effective in prompting the Obama administration to provide emails and other communications to Congress, or whether it would spark a long court battle.
The White House responded immediately to the vote with an email to the media defending Holder, saying he had ended the practice of "gunwalking," which was begun during the George W Bush administration.
"Eric Holder has been an excellent attorney general and just yesterday the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee acknowledged that he had no evidence - or even the suspicion - that the attorney general knew of the misguided tactics used in this operation," wrote Dan Pfeiffer, the White House Communications Director .
"A politically-motivated agenda prevailed and instead of engaging with the President in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy, today we saw the House of Representatives perform a transparently political stunt."
The unprecedented House debate soured the White House's victory earlier in the day at the Supreme Court, which upheld Obama's controversial health care law - a ruling that was reverberating throughout the country.
Holder also termed the move to hold him in contempt a politically motivated act in an election year. He said that congressman Darrell Issa, who leads the committee investigating a flawed gun-smuggling investigation, and others have focused on politics over public safety.
The House devoted much of its legislative session on Thursday to debating Holder's role in "Operation Fast and Furious," which was aimed at following guns purchased in Arizona to determine whether they flowed into Mexico for use by drug cartels.
According to government figures, between 2007-2011, of 99,000 firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted to US law
enforcement, more than 68,000 came from the US.
In recent years, those weapons have shifted more and more from handguns to higher-powered rifles.
By early 2011, Fast and Furious had been terminated after disclosures that federal agents had lost track of many of the high-powered weapons, which subsequently were traced to crimes, including the murder of a US border patrol agent.
House Republicans and Democrats have engaged in scathing arguments all year over issues ranging from budget and taxes to contraceptives. Thursday's debate was no exception.
Republican Representative Richard Nugent said the Obama administration had done little but "hide, deny and stonewall" in dealing with a House probe of Fast and Furious.
He compared its actions to former President Richard Nixon's during the 1970s Watergate scandal.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of using the election-year contempt charge to undermine Holder's efforts to combat voter suppression in some states.
"This is something that makes a witch hunt look like a day at the beach," Pelosi told reporters. "It is a railroading of a
[contempt] resolution that is unsubstantiated by the facts."
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus rallied to defend Holder, the first black US attorney general, and some planned to walk out of the House chamber together in protest of the contempt vote.
Holder said that he had taken action and ordered an independent investigation into the operation when it came to his attention.
That probe by the Justice Department's inspector general is under way. Holder blames Issa and his supporters for the dispute that led to the contempt vote.
Issa subpoenaed documents and the attorney general says he made an offer to settle the dispute that Issa rebuffed.
Al Jazeera's Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, said that House's move now opens the way for the Justice Department, which Holder heads, to open a criminal investigation into his involvement in the scandal. She added, however, that it was "very unlikely" that this would happen.
The tussle between the Obama administration and House Republicans is over the release of a series of documents dating from February 4, 2011.
The high-stakes fight could jeopardise the jobs of some top Justice Department officials if Congress ultimately finds that
they were hiding some important information related to Fast and Furious.
Conversely, Republicans could be embarrassed if nothing turns up and they devoted so much time and energy amid the need to help the struggling US economy - the top priority of voters in the run-up to the November presidential and congressional elections.
As the House debated the contempt accusation, Holder was in Florida, where he was scheduled to speak at the League of United Latin American Citizens annual convention.
The National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying organisation that opposes gun regulation, has made the Holder contempt move a top priority.
It has warned all 435 House members that a vote against the contempt citation would be a black mark against them.
The NRA has argued that Fast and Furious was actually a back-door move by the Obama administration to lay the ground for new gun regulations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the southwest border gun-running investigation.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican with close ties to the NRA, thinks emails and other communications being withheld might spell out more detail on the role of top Justice Department officials, especially after they discovered the law enforcement operation had gone bad.
Obama administration officials point out that the Justice Department already has released more than 7,000 documents to Issa's committee and that they showed that top officials in Washington initially knew little about Fast and Furious, which was hatched by law enforcement officials in Arizona.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have complained that Issa has rejected their calls to investigate Bush administration gun
probes similar to Fast and Furious.
The fight between Republicans and Holder escalated last week, after the White House exerted "executive privilege" over
the post-February 4 documents, saying they were protected communications that any administration needs as part of its deliberative process.
Issa's committee, in a partisan vote last week, charged Holder with contempt after negotiations to resolve the dispute failed.
While contempt of Congress charges generally are aimed at forcing officials to produce information to Congress, legal
experts point out that they are very hard to enforce and the action could bring months or years of litigation and stalemate.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies