Democrats Lay Groundwork for Subpoenas
Congress and the White House are inching closer to a possible showdown, as lawmakers seek to learn more about the controversial firing of eight United States attorneys by the Bush administration.
A House subcommittee voted Wednesday to authorize the authority to issue subpoenas for key White House and Justice Department officials. The Senate Judiciary Committee is to vote on similar authority Thursday.
President Bush has offered to make key aides available for interviews, but only in private, and not under oath. The White House offer also precluded the taking of notes or recording of the interviews.
The subpoena power granted to the House Judiciary chairman by the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law is aimed at prompting testimony from several high-ranking administration officials, including the president's political adviser, Karl Rove.
"There must be accountability," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the subcommittee. "We are greatly concerned that this purge was intended to allow prosecutors to be used as simply one more instrument of political control, instead of to administer justice to all."
Democrats on the House panel say sworn testimony from Rove and others, on the record, is the best way to get to the bottom of what happened.
Republicans counter that subpoena threats are premature. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he hopes he won't actually have to use the subpoena power. But he says the White House will have to budge from its "no sworn testimony" stance.
"I'm hopeful that we can go forward on negotiations. I mean, obviously anyone who comes before the committee would have to be put under oath," he said. "Obviously there would have to be a transcript. We don't do anything without a record."
But in a testy White House briefing Wednesday, the president's spokesman, Tony Snow, showed little sign of bending the no-sworn-testimony policy. He says the administration is already making an extraordinary concession by offering to provide documents and background briefings to lawmakers about the White House role in the U.S. attorneys' firings.
"We have offered everything that gets them the access to all the facts and the truth," Snow said. "If they don't accept the offer, it lifts the veil on some of the motivations, which means that people are less interested in the truth than creating a political spectacle."
The Bush administration has always been careful not to give lawmakers, or the public, too much information about the inner workings of the White House, saying to do so would make staffers reluctant to provide candid advice to the president. In this case, though, the White House may have weakened its own argument, says George Mason University Professor Mark Rozell, author of the book Executive Privilege.
"If President Bush believes that a president and his aides are entitled to complete candor within the administration, then he should have stood his ground and not offered this compromise where he would send up White House aides to Capitol Hill to talk on an informal basis," Rozell said. "I think that leads Congress to say, 'look, if they can talk to us informally, then why not on the record? What is it that you have to hide?'"
This kind of battle between the executive and legislative branches is sometimes settled by the judiciary, through a lawsuit. More often, though, before it reaches that stage, Rozell says one side gives in, or a face-saving compromise is worked out.
"If history is any guide at all, this is not going to go to the courts," Rozell said. "It's going to be resolved between the two political branches, or if both sides come to some accommodation."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, meanwhile, has been talking by telephone with the remaining U.S. attorneys. He plans to meet with some of them today in St. Louis.
Now Justice officials say they will look for ways to balance those priorities with the local challenges in each U.S. attorney's district.
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