By DAVID ESPO, AP
WASHINGTON -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 stonewalling, 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 (news, bio, voting record), 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 “If they issue subpoenas, yes, the offer is withdrawn,” said presidential spokesman Tony Snow.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 (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the , 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.
Still, it seemed likely the next act would be a separate vote Thursday 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 (news, bio, voting record), 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 (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania is the senior Republican on the panel, and Democrats were hoping he would side with them.
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 fromafter four years of war. And a House committee provided a stage last week for testimony by , a one-time covert official whose exposure figured in the recent trial and conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby 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 (news, bio, voting record) and Rep. Heather Wilson (news, bio, voting record). 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 thatpractices 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 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,” added Rep. Adam Putnam (news, bio, voting record) of Florida.
Concern was evident among Republicans at the House subcommittee hearing, although GOP lawmakers repeatedly pressed Democrats to hold off on approval of the subpoenas.
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.”