A House committee voted 23-17 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, a party-line vote that escalates a standoff with the Obama administration and raises the possibility of a contempt vote before the full House.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., vowed to hold the contempt vote after Holder defied a subpoena asking him to turn over internal emails that Issa said would shed light on a failed federal program targeting drug traffickers. Holder met with lawmakers Tuesday night in an attempt to strike a compromise, but was unsuccessful.

At Holder's urging, the Obama administration then invoked executive privilege to keep the documents secret. It was the first time this president has wielded executive privilege to avoid disclosing sensitive information.

The issue could now go before the full House of Representatives, an unprecedented event. The oversight committee voted in 1998 to recommend holding President Bill Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, in contempt over documents relating to impeachment hearings against Clinton, but the matter never came before the House for a floor vote.

If that happens, it would provide the groundwork for a potential federal case against Holder. That would be an extraordinary step, but it is also possible that a contempt vote would stand as a symbolic rebuke.

The House panel has spent months investigating a disastrous program in which Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents allowed weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels. The government lost track of many of the guns, and some of the weapons resurfaced at a crime scene where a U.S. Border Patrol Agent was slain.

Republicans have accused Holder of obstructing the investigation by stalling on providing documents and have suggested that knowledge of the operation, dubbed Fast and Furious, extended to the highest levels of the Obama administration. Republican lawmakers said Obama's use of executive privilege bolstered that claim, implying his administration was trying to obscure its involvement.