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House Democrats walk out of the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder on Captiol Hill, in Washington on Thursday.Yuri Gripas/Reuters

On a day of high constitutional drama in Washington there was also plenty of mean-spirited, petty, partisan politics. Hours after the Supreme Court ruled President Barack Obama's sweeping health-care reform was lawful, scores of Democrats and Republicans hurled insults and accusations across the floor of the House of Representatives.

At the heart of the long-running and now bitterly partisan showdown is a murky gun-tracking operation, and it has provoked a confrontation between the executive branch and congressional Republicans, with Mr. Obama invoking executive privilege to shield documents from a congressional probe.

That last-ditch effort failed to thwart a an unprecedented move Thursday, when, after a rancorous debate, the Republican-dominated House overwhelming voted to find U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

Minutes after the vote, a furious Mr. Holder accused Republicans of a "misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year," adding the contempt finding was perhaps "good political theatre in the minds of some, but it is, at base, both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people."

In the coming months, Republicans will target Mr. Holder and his boss, Mr. Obama, as an executive run amok, willing to ride roughshod over Congress. Meanwhile, the President, in his bid for re-election, will point to obstructionist Republicans and contend they are more interested in ousting him from office than dealing with the nation's business.

Many Democrats walked out before the vote, furious over what they regard as an attempt to smear Mr. Holder – the first African American to hold the nation's highest legal office – as part of a broader effort to cripple Mr. Obama at all costs in an election year. But 17 Democrats, fearful of losing their seats in November and mindful that the powerful National Rifle Association has threatened to target those in swing districts who opposed the motion, joined the Republican majority. Two Republicans were opposed.

A similarly lopsided vote citing Mr. Holder for civil contempt followed. The criminal complaint will be referred to the Attorney-General of the District of Columbia for presentation to a grand jury. It seems destined to go nowhere, despite the embarrassment of an Attorney-General headed for a grand jury. The civil action will likely linger in the courts for years.

Mr. Obama's use of executive privilege to back Mr. Holder and shield documents from the congressional probe further inflamed partisan passions. Executive privilege, used by Richard Nixon to keep incriminating Oval Office tapes about Watergate away from a special prosecutor and by Bill Clinton to keep aides from testifying about his escapades with a White House intern, inevitably ignites furious battles in Congress.

At issue is Mr. Holder's refusal to hand over documents that may shed light on a botched scheme to uncover and track massive gun purchases in Arizona by Mexican drug cartels. The so-called "Fast and Furious" operation blew up after a U.S. border- patrol officer was killed in 2010 – apparently by one of the thousands of exported guns federal agents were supposedly tracking.