WASHINGTON - President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress careened closer to a full-blown legal showdown over the firing of federal prosecutors Wednesday as a House subcommittee voted subpoenas for top administration officials in defiance of the White House.
"After two months of stone- walling, shifting stories and misleading testimony, it is clear that we are still not getting the truth about the decision to fire these prosecutors and its cover-up," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
In response, an unyielding White House threatened to rescind its day-old proposal for top strategist Karl Rove and other officials to answer lawmakers' questions away from the glare of television lights and not under oath. "If they issue subpoenas, yes, the offer is withdrawn," said presidential spokesman Tony Snow. Democrats "will have rejected the offer," he said.
Despite the rhetoric, Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, repeatedly suggested there was room for negotiations in a confrontation that has threatened Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' hold on his job and forced his chief of staff to resign.
"What we're voting on today is merely a backup," said the Michigan Democrat, adding that he would refrain from issuing the subpoenas, at least for the time being.
Documents made public during the day did little to clarify the circumstances surrounding the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. Instead, they showed the Justice Department scrambling to answer questions from California Republican lawmakers critical of the record compiled by the U.S. attorney's office on immigration cases. Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney at the time, was among the group that was fired.
In an apparent attempt to mend fences, Gonzales arranged a series of meetings in the coming days with groups of U.S. attorneys around the country, beginning today in St. Louis.
It seemed likely the next act in the political drama would be a separate vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve a second set of subpoenas for Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and William Kelley, who was Miers' deputy.
Senate Democrats, in particular, have been insistent on gaining testimony under oath, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed the idea that Rove would be allowed to answer questions on the White House's terms. "Anyone who would take that deal isn't playing with a full deck," he said. Republicans forced a delay in a vote on Senate subpoenas a week ago, and it was not clear whether any of the GOP members of the panel were now prepared to support them. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the panel, floated a compromise in which Rove and others would answer questions from selected lawmakers without being sworn in but with a transcription made. It was not clear whether that would satisfy either the White House or congressional Democrats. The clash comes less than 100 days after the new Democratic-controlled Congress took power and pledged to confront Bush aggressively. Both houses are to vote in the next few days on legislation requiring the beginning of a troop withdrawal from Iraq after four years of war. And a House committee provided a stage last week for testimony by Valerie Plame, a one-time covert CIA official whose exposure figured in the recent trial and conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on charges of obstruction of justice. The furor that has engulfed Gonzales stems from the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors last winter and a shifting series of explanations that followed. Initially, the Justice Department said most if not all were dismissed because of poor job performance. Then David Iglesias, who had been removed as U.S. attorney in New Mexico, disclosed he had received calls close to last fall's elections from two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson. The two inquired about the pace of a corruption investigation, he said, adding that he interpreted the calls as pressure to rush indictments that might harm Democrats politically. Wilson was in a hotly contested race at the time. Both she and Domenici have denied any wrongdoing. Officials also insisted that the White House had played a limited role in the decision to fire the eight. Then Snow told reporters Miers had first raised the prospect of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after Bush's re-election in 2004. Snow soon had to recant that claim. "I don't want to try to vouch for origination," he said last Friday as e-mails surfaced shedding new light on Rove's role. "At this juncture, people have hazy memories." In the days since, Gonzales has been buffeted by calls for his resignation by Democrats and even a few Republicans, particularly in light of separate disclosures that FBI practices had resulted in the illegal collection of personal data on Americans and foreigners. Despite expressions of support from Bush, one member of the House GOP leadership, Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, said Wednesday that Gonzales "has to evaluate how effectively he can continue to serve as our attorney general. I am stopping short of calling for his resignation." Concern was evident among Republicans at the House subcommittee hearing, although GOP lawmakers repeatedly pressed Democrats to hold off on approval of the subpoenas. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., told Democrats he would support subpoenas in the future "if some evidence of misconduct comes up." Democrats were unmoved. "The White House has offered a proposal that allows limited access to witnesses, no access to key documents and no testimony under oath," said Sanchez. "We have worked toward voluntary cooperation on this investigation, but we must prepare for the possibility that the Justice Department and the White House will continue to hide the truth." AP-CS-03-21-07 2010EDT
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