WASHINGTON -- A House of Representatives committee on Wednesday took the rare step of holding Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's highest law enforcement officer, in contempt as high-stakes election-year finger-pointing again dominated debate and dialogue in a bitterly torn and partisan Congress.
President Barack Obama had attempted to withhold documents related to the Fast and Furious gun operation, claiming executive privilege in response to a congressional probe for the first time in his presidency.
Holder blasted the action by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as "an election-year tactic intended to distract attention, and -- as a result -- has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: protecting the American people."
But House Republican leaders quickly announced plans by the full House to move ahead with a contempt vote next week. The committee vote was 23-17, along party lines. Republicans have a 242-191 House majority.
"Despite being given multiple opportunities to provide the documents necessary for Congress' investigation into Fast and Furious, Attorney General Holder continues to stonewall," said a statement from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
In Operation Fast and Furious, federal officials allowed guns to illegally "walk" into Mexico from the United States, with the aim of tracking them to drug cartels. Some of the weapons were used in violent crimes, including the slaying of a U.S. border agent.
"Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again," Boehner and Cantor said.
They told Holder that unless he "re-evaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week."
Holder issued a lengthy statement that said committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had rejected his efforts to reach a "reasonable accommodation."
"Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch."
The contempt vote, Holder said, "does not help us fix the problems that led to this operation or previous ones and it does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer."
Congressional Democrats shared his pique, as the committee session grew into a heated affair at times with lawmakers from one party pointing fingers at colleagues from the other.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, lambasted the proceeding, telling Issa that "for the past year, you have been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard."
Republicans wouldn't relent. "I don't know. Maybe I'm idealistic. I didn't think this could go on in a Department of Justice in the United States of America in this day and age. It's a very sad day," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
The contempt vote came hours after the Democratic-led Senate blocked a bid to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from setting standards to lower air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The day's battles were the latest chapter in the partisan warfare that's characterized much of congressional action for the past year and a half. The fights in recent months have stymied even legislation that once got bipartisan support, such as highway funding and student loan interest rates.
Student loan rates will double July 1 on certain loans unless Congress acts, and funding for highway and rail programs will run out June 30. Negotiators are discussing compromise, and there's some optimism that accords will be reached.
In the meantime, the war of words rages.
"They can't figure out how to unwind what's politically advantageous to both sides," said Stephen Hess, a government studies analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution, a research group.
Every now and then, he said, "political parties in election years figure they're better off coming together at election time, but this time they can't. For one thing, they've got too much pressure from their constituents. Compromise used to be a good word in Washington. It ain't anymore."
In the Senate on Wednesday, a group of lawmakers tried to block the EPA's rule on mercury emissions by power plants. The effort failed, as 46 senators voted yes and 53 were opposed.
The rule "would mandate that virtually no new coal-fired power plants could be built anymore in the United States. It is painful to think about all of these folks who will be out of work," said the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, John Barrasso of Wyoming.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the EPA initiative was little more than Democrats, notably the White House, trying to divert public attention from more pressing issues.
"It's become pretty clear over the past few months that President Obama now views his job as the deflector in chief," McConnell said in a blistering floor speech. "No longer content to lay all the nation's problems at the feet of his predecessor, he's taken to creating controversies out of whole cloth."
He called the fight over student loan rates "manufactured," saying of it and other controversies that "the goal is clear: to get reporters to focus on these things, and maybe the rest of the country will too."
The EPA rule would impose the first national limits on emissions of mercury and other air toxics, including arsenic and lead, from power plants. It also would reduce other air pollutants, and it's expected to have major health benefits, especially for people with asthma and chronic lung diseases.
About half the nation's coal-fired power plants already have the scrubbers and other equipment they need to meet the standards because they had to comply with similar laws in some states.
Once in effect, the measure will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths per year and 130,000 asthma attacks, according to the EPA. Plants generally would have up to four years to meet the standards. If they needed more time, they could apply on a case-by-case basis for an additional year.