In an unprecedented move, US lawmakers Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, paving the way for legal action over a probe into a botched gun-running scheme.
Several furious Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi, the party's top member in the House of Representatives, stormed out of the chamber at the start of the vote.
They were protesting what they say is highly political and partisan action by Republicans to discredit Holder and President Barack Obama's administration ahead of the November elections.
But the resolution was adopted with a vote of 255-67 in the Republican-led House. Several dozen Democrats refused to participate, but several more also voted to find the nation's top justice official in contempt.
The resolution calls for the case to be referred to a US attorney tasked with bringing a possible indictment against Holder for blocking a 16-month investigation into Operation Fast and Furious.
The House was to vote on a second resolution on civil contempt, which would authorize a congressional panel to sue the Justice Department in federal court to compel officials to relinquish documents subpoenaed by Republican investigators.
The finding of contempt, the first-ever for a sitting attorney general, was immediately branded by the White House as a "transparently political stunt."
"Republicans pushed for political theater rather than legitimate congressional oversight," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, 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."
Launched in Arizona by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fast and Furious was a sting operation designed to track weapons bought by straw buyers and smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.
But a large number of the arms went missing, and two were later found at the murder scene of a US border patrol agent.
Republican Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee which led the investigation, is seeking to discover who in the government knew about the operation and when, and whether there was a Justice Department cover-up.