By LARRY MARGASAK, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Barring a last-minute deal, House Republicans plan historic votes Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in civil and criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents related to a bungled gun-tracking operation.

A sitting attorney general never has been held in contempt and Republicans picked an odd day to set a precedent. They scheduled the votes the same day the Supreme Court was deciding the legality of President Barack Obama's health care law.

Passage of the contempt resolutions was not in doubt. Republicans control the House, and are likely to pick up Democrats who support the National Rifle Association. The NRA said it's keeping score on how members vote, partly because the gun owners' group believes the Obama administration wanted to use the program – called Operation Fast and Furious – to make the case for more gun control.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving House member and normally an NRA supporter, said Wednesday he would not back the contempt resolutions but instead wants the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to conduct a more thorough investigation.

The criminal contempt resolution would send the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder. The civil contempt resolution would allow the House to go to court in an effort to force Holder to turn over documents the Oversight Committee wants. In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.

The House is unlikely to get the documents anytime soon, because Obama has invoked a broad form of executive privilege, which protects from disclosure internal documents from executive branch agencies.

Republicans want to focus on the economy and health care in an election year. They're hoping the diversion of holding the nation's chief law enforcement officer in contempt will not muddle their message.

Democrats have kept up steady criticism, accusing the GOP majority of trying to embarrass the administration and rushing to judgment rather than putting more effort into a compromise that could give Republicans the documents they want.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said a committee report recommending contempt had more than 100 mischaracterizations, omissions and errors. He said the dispute could be settled if House Speaker John Boehner became personally involved in negotiations.

In Operation Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.

Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Fast and Furious.

Two of the guns turned up at the scene where border agent Brian Terry was killed in Arizona in a shootout with Mexican bandits.

Ironically, the documents at the heart of the current argument are not directly related to the workings of Operation Fast and Furious. Rather, they are internal Justice Department communications after February 2011, when the Obama administration falsely told Congress that guns were not allowed to "walk" to Mexico. The department has given the Oversight Committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., 7,600 documents on the operation itself.

Fast and Furious had been shut down by the time of the false information, but Issa wants documents showing deliberations during the 10 months it took for the administration to acknowledge the error.

Issa told the House Rules Committee on Wednesday that he had no evidence that Holder personally knew that guns were allowed to "walk." But he has suspected some Justice Department officials were part of a cover-up.

Democrats insisted the administration did nothing wrong, and said Republicans were just playing politics.

"It has all the trappings of a witch hunt," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. "I don't think there's any way we're doing justice to Brian Terry with what we're doing today."

Issa, however, said the documents he wants are essential to learn who in the administration produced a February 2011 letter with false information.

Referring to Justice Department officials, Issa said, "When did they know we were lied to and what did they do about it?"

Issa also said closure was needed for Terry's family.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the public would view the vote as "political theater" and "gamesmanship."

Carney said the Justice Department and the White House on Tuesday had shown House Republicans a representative sample of the documents they were seeking. He said the administration's offer would have provided "unprecedented access" to internal communications about how it responded to congressional inquiries into the Fast and Furious program.

Here are some pictures from the committee vote:
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  • From left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep, Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and many House Democrats walk out of the Capitol during the vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, Thursday, June 28, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, and the committee's ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., go to the House Rules Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, to argue procedures as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on whether Attorney General Eric Holder is in contempt of Congress because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed gun-smuggling probe involving Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., left, stretches out her hand to get the attention of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, sits between them. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (C) talks with raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) during a mark up hearing on Capitol Hill June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Issa and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., center, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, confers with an aide as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, second from left, speaks with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who authored an amendment in support of Holder. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans had pressed for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, center, debates Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., right, considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, speaks at left. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans are pressing for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (R) hears from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) during a mark up hearing with June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Attorney General Eric holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., speaks to reporters following his meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder walks through Statuary Hall to speak to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • FILE -In this Dec. 8, 2011 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, shakes hands with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington. Holder is proposing to meet with Issa by Monday to settle a dispute over Justice Department documents the congressman is demanding on a flawed gun-smuggling probe. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)