WASHINGTON — House Democrats threatened Monday to hold President Bush’s
key confidants in contempt of Congress unless they comply with
subpoenas for information on the Justice Department’s purge of federal
prosecutors last winter.
The White House shrugged off the ultimatum, saying the information is off-limits under executive privilege and that the aides in question — White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former presidential counselor Harriet Miers — are immune from prosecution.
“It won’t go anywhere,” predicted White House press secretary Dana Perino.
Congressional Democrats nonetheless submitted their 102-page report, and a Republican rebuttal, to the House clerk on Monday afternoon. The report accused Miers of contempt for failing to appear and testify as subpoenaed. She and Bolten were charged with failing to produce documents on whether the prosecutors were fired at the White House’s behest.
Also in the sights of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers: Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s rise to the White House and a top political adviser who left last summer.
House Democrats were trying to round up a majority to pass the citation, said two House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process was ongoing.
In a separate letter, Conyers, D-Mich., urged White House Counsel Fred Fielding to comply.
“As we submit the committee’s contempt report to the full House, I am writing one more time to seek to resolve this issue on a cooperative basis,” Conyers said in a letter to Fielding.
The Congressional Research Service, Conyers added, reported that in at least 74 instances, sitting White House advisers have testified before Congress once there was a committee contempt vote.
“I very much hope that we can similarly avoid a constitutional confrontation in this case,” Conyers said.
If the report is passed, the House would forward the citation to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution.
The White House showed no signs of budging, maintaining that the law does not require a U.S. attorney to prosecute someone carrying out a president’s invocation of executive privilege.
“This Congress is proving to be the all-time champion of investigations,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “If the Judiciary Committee really wanted facts instead of headlines, they should have accepted the president’s offer of accommodation to interview current and former advisers.”
Under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Justice Department officials consulted with the White House, fired at least nine federal prosecutors and kindled a political furor that found a Justice Department hiring process that favored Republican loyalists.
Fielding has offered to make officials and documents available to the committee behind closed doors — not under oath and off the record. Lawmakers demanded a transcript and the negotiations stalled.
In their own section of the report, committee Republicans said Conyers’ probe has uncovered no wrongdoing regarding the firings and pointed out that letting a judge referee the dispute could shut down the checks and balances of congressional oversight.
“What the majority actually seeks is not the truth, but political confrontation,” they said. “No good purpose would be served by the spectacle of holding either Harriet Miers or Joshua Bolten in contempt of Congress so that the committee may recklessly pursue a myth.”
Keeping the U.S. attorney controversy alive are several political and administrative developments, including the pending Senate vote on the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general. Unlike Gonzales, Mukasey during his confirmation hearings did not rule out prosecuting Miers and Bolten for contempt of Congress.
In what he said was his ninth letter to the White House on this issue, Conyers said he was trying one last time to reach an agreement on releasing the information.
The proposal included an initial release of communications between White House officials and others on the firings, according to Conyers’ letter to Fielding. The White House would then make available for confidential staff review any remaining internal White House documents on the same subjects.
Finally, Miers, Rove and other, lower-ranking current and former White House officials would be interviewed along the lines of Fielding’s previous offer of private testimony not under oath. Conyers insisted on a transcript of any such question-and-answer sessions, a condition that Fielding so far has rejected.
Conyers asked Monday that Fielding reply by the end of the week. Congress goes on a two-week recess in mid-November.
It’s not clear that contempt of Congress citations must be prosecuted. The law says the U.S. attorney “shall” bring the matter to a grand jury.
However, the House voted 259-105 in 1982 for a contempt citation against Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Anne Gorsuch, but the Reagan-era Justice Department refused to prosecute the case.
The Justice Department also sued the House of Representatives in that case, but the court threw the case out and urged negotiation. The Reagan administration eventually agreed to turn over the documents.
The last time a full chamber of Congress voted on a contempt of Congress citation was 1983. The House voted 413-0 to cite former EPA official Rita Lavelle for contempt of Congress for refusing to appear before a House committee. Lavelle was later acquitted in court of the contempt charge, but she was convicted of perjury in a separate trial.