By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and Washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
The House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to issue contempt citations for two of President Bush's closest aides, moving nearer to a constitutional confrontation with the White House over access to information about the Justice Department's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.
The panel voted 22 to 17, along party lines, to issue citations to Joshua B. Bolten, White House chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, former White House counsel. Both refused to comply with committee subpoenas after Bush declared that documents and testimony related to the prosecutor firings are protected by executive privilege.
"If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up . . . then we have already lost," committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said before the vote. "We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee or any other."
The vote represents the first concrete step toward finding Bolten and Miers in criminal contempt of Congress. The issue will next be considered by the entire House, and if a similar vote occurs there, the citations could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. But a floor vote appears unlikely before the end of next week, when the House recesses for a five-week summer break.
"Congress will act to preserve and protect our criminal justice system and to ensure appropriate Congressional oversight in all areas essential to the well-being of the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. She added that she hopes the vote will "help the Administration see the light" on its privilege claims.
Contempt of Congress is a federal misdemeanor, punishable by as much as one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Previous contempt votes against officials in other administrations were settled by compromise, but officials on both sides have warned that resolution may be elusive in this dispute.
A Pelosi aide confirmed that a floor vote is unlikely until after Labor Day, giving Congress and White House counsel Fred F. Fielding another month and a half to negotiate a settlement of the legal standoff.
The Bush administration has said that it will block the prosecution of any contempt charges. A presidentially appointed U.S. attorney, it said, cannot flout a president's determination that the materials and testimony sought are protected.
White House spokesman Tony Snow responded in strong terms: "Now we have a situation where there is an attempt to do something that's never been done in American history, which is to assail the concept of executive privilege, which hails back to the administration of George Washington and, in particular, to use criminal contempt charges against the White House chief of staff and the White House legal counsel," he said.
Miers's attorney, George T. Manning of Atlanta, did not respond to a telephone message left at his office yesterday.
Republicans on the panel argued strongly against the contempt citations, and Democrats shot down two proposed GOP amendments before voting. "I believe this is an unnecessary provocation," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said. "Absent showing that a crime was committed . . . I think the White House is going to win an argument in court."
Sensenbrenner, the judiciary panel's former chairman, said lawmakers should instead have filed a lawsuit challenging Bush's executive privilege claim. But Conyers said the administration had provoked the battle by offering only private, off-the-record interviews of presidential adviser Karl Rove and other aides about their roles in the removal of the prosecutors.
House Republicans are anticipating a September floor showdown and plan to brief members next week on the contempt process and the current dispute.
Yesterday's action came after seven months of hearings and subpoenas in the investigation of last year's prosecutor firings. The dismissals culminated a two-year effort by the White House and the Justice Department that targeted some U.S. attorneys for removal partly because of their perceived disloyalty to the Bush administration and GOP priorities.
Several of the fired prosecutors have alleged that they were improperly contacted by GOP lawmakers or staff members about politically sensitive investigations.
Democrats say that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others have offered no reasonable explanation for removal of most of the nine prosecutors.
More than half a dozen senior Justice Department officials have resigned during the investigation.