By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
Escalating a potential legal showdown with President Bush, a Senate committee yesterday approved three subpoenas to top administration officials, including White House adviser Karl Rove, demanding sworn testimony about what they knew of plans to fire eight U.S. attorneys.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, following similar action from a House Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday, issued subpoenas for the testimony of Rove, former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and deputy White House counsel William Kelley. Each was mentioned in e-mails retrieved from the Justice Department regarding the planning to dismiss federal prosecutors.
Democrats rejected Bush's offer this week to have Rove and other advisers testify behind closed doors, not under oath and with no transcript of the meeting -- an offer administration officials called "extraordinarily generous." They said the move would give Congress information while protecting the president's ability to obtain unfettered advice without its public airing.
"What we're told we can get is nothing, nothing, nothing," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). He said it is essential to hear from Rove: "I know he's the decider for the White House -- he's not the decider for the United States Senate."
Subpoenas will not be served to Rove and others until the committee determines there is no hope of reaching a voluntary accommodation with the White House. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the committee's ranking Republican, predicted that Bush will stand firm against his aides' testifying under oath, creating a legal showdown that could take years to settle and leave the committee with no new information.
"If we have the confrontation, we're not going to get this information for a very long time," Specter said.
White House officials yesterday refused to budge from the president's original offer, which also included giving the committees e-mails sent externally to the Justice Department, Congress and other third parties about the issue of the firings. They said that would be more than sufficient to establish the White House's rationale behind the dismissals last year.
"We're not going to negotiate with ourselves or with members of Congress who seem intent on having a political trial, not a basic inquiry into the facts," said presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, one of Bush's closest aides. "Democrats have yet to demonstrate any wrongdoing by the White House, yet they want to haul high-ranking White House aides before their committees and treat them as if they did something wrong."
Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales have rejected Democratic insinuations that the firings were connected to high-profile public corruption cases that several of the prosecutors were taking up against prominent Republicans. Gonzales reiterated that he would not quit. "I'm going to stay focused on protecting our kids," he said in St. Louis at a roundtable discussion on protecting children from sexual exploitation.
In another important move, Leahy and Specter announced a hearing next Thursday with just one witness. That is D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff, whose e-mails documented that the plan to oust the prosecutors came from the White House as far back as December 2004.
Sampson and his attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, are still negotiating the terms of his testimony before the panel. Berenson was trying to delay the hearing into next month because of his personal travel plans.
Democrats said they are rejecting private, unsworn meetings with White House aides partly because off-the-record meetings with them have so far produced inaccurate answers. Leahy became furious after a March 8 meeting he had with Gonzales and three other senators in his Capitol suite, at which Gonzales gave no hint that he was about to push Sampson out the door because e-mails would contradict the attorney general's previous public comments on the scandal.
Sampson resigned March 12, and the next day Leahy and Gonzales had a chance encounter at a judicial conference at the Supreme Court. Gonzales requested to speak with Leahy, according to those who witnessed the event, and the senator rebuffed the attorney general by telling him the next time they spoke would be "under oath."
"I've had enough of these closed-door meetings," Leahy said at yesterday's committee meeting.
The investigation into the prosecutors' dismissals is moving on several fronts, in both chambers. The House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law approved subpoenas Wednesday for Rove, Miers, Sampson, Kelley, and a deputy to Rove, Scott Jennings.
In addition, the panel approved subpoenas for a broad range of documents from the White House having anything to do with the prosecutors' ousters, rejecting Bush's offer to provide only communications with outside parties but not internal e-mails among top White House aides.
The Senate has not approved a subpoena for Jennings or for documents, but Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested yesterday they will be forthcoming next week.
The House and Senate committees have subpoenaed a group of top aides at the Justice Department and, after Gonzales relented, are negotiating the terms of voluntary, private interviews before determining whether to issue the subpoenas and hold public hearings with their testimony.
The administration is more willing to allow the Justice officials to testify because the department falls under the oversight authority of the two Judiciary committees, whereas the White House staff has no direct controller in Congress.
Specter told reporters yesterday that he spoke with White House counsel Fred Fielding and made a counterproposal, suggesting that Rove and the other aides be interviewed by a small number of lawmakers in public, with a transcript prepared but not under oath. He said Fielding listened attentively but indicated he was not authorized to negotiate -- but said he would take the suggestion to Bush.
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.