PHOENIX -- On a 23-17 party line, Republicans on a House panel took the extraordinary step of voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt because of what they say is his failure to release critical information about Operation "Fast and Furious."
It is the first time a U.S. Attorney General has been held in contempt.
As the House Oversight Committee on Government Reform was about to start, President Obama took the step of asserting executive privilege over certain documents related to the gunwalking probe.
The president's executive privilege can shield sensitive information and the Justice Department says the papers in question could jeopardize future criminal cases or reveal classified information.
Under Operation Fast and Furious, ATF agents lost track of thousands of guns they were supposed to be tracking. Many of the guns came from a Glendale gun store, and two were found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry.
Congressman Paul Gosar (R, District 1) was the only Arizona Congressman on the panel.
"I think this is a sad day in American politics and justice when we have to hold an Attorney General in contempt for failure to produce documents," Gosar said.
Democrats on the panel accused Republicans of using the contempt proceedings as an election year tactic.
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is supposed to root out problems and find ways to reform how government works. It shouldn't be a political witch hunt," said Democrat Carolyn Maloney of New York.
Gosar denied any political motivations.
"We could have had this done...way long ago if we just had simple compliance and had the Attorney General work in concert with Congress, that could have all been done last year," Gosar said. "What is so sad is that [Democrats] have actually tried to make this a political witch hunt when it is actually about the people of Arizona and the Brian Terry family."
Brian Terry's family released a statement slamming Holder and the President for "compounding the tragedy."
"Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious," the statement read in part.
Holder released his own statement after the hearing, calling the contempt vote "extraordinary, unprecedented, and entirely unnecessary."
"This divisive action 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. It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention," Holder said in the statement.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is expected to hold a full house vote on the contempt proceedings next week unless Holder produces the documents before then. If it passes, the issue would be assigned to a U.S. Attorney.