By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008
The House yesterday escalated a constitutional showdown with President Bush, approving the first-ever contempt of Congress citations against West Wing aides and reigniting last year's battle over the scope of executive privilege.
On a 223 to 32 vote, the House approved contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers over their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that administration officials sought to politicize the Justice Department.
The vote came after a morning of tense partisan bickering over parliamentary rules, including a GOP call for a vote on a motion to close the chamber that briefly forced lawmakers to leave a memorial service for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who died this week. The conflict was capped later in the day when most House Republicans walked off the floor and refused to cast a final vote. They accused Democrats of forcing a partisan vote on the contempt citations instead of approving a surveillance bill supported by Bush.
Democrats said they were left with no choice but to engage in a legal showdown with Bush because he has refused for nearly a year to allow any current or former West Wing staff member to testify in the inquiry. Citing executive privilege, the president has offered their testimony on the condition that it is taken without transcripts and not under oath.
"This is beyond arrogance. This is hubris taken to the ultimate degree," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in the closing moments of the debate.
The administration immediately condemned the House action, noting that no White House official has ever been cited for contempt. "This action is unprecedented, and it is outrageous. It is also an incredible waste of time -- time the House should spend doing the American people's legislative business," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.
Until now, the most recent Cabinet-level officials cited for contempt were two administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1982 and 1983, over their refusal to cooperate in House oversight investigations.
The contempt resolution against Bolten cites his refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents and e-mails sought by the House Judiciary Committee in its now year-long investigation into the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Miers is cited for refusing to testify after she was subpoenaed to appear before the panel last summer.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved contempt citations for Bolten and former White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, who also refused to appear before that panel. The full Senate has not acted on the matter.
The furor over the fired prosecutors began in January 2007 when congressional Democrats learned that seven U.S. attorneys had been fired on the same day, Dec. 7, 2006. Most senior staff members of the Justice Department resigned as the congressional investigations unfolded, and former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in late August, is the subject of an internal investigation into whether he tampered with a likely witness.
Democrats said their votes were meant to compel more information from a White House that has blocked their efforts to complete their investigation. "Absent this resolution, the Congress has yielded to the executive the principle of whether they participate in oversight," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).
By law, the contempt citations go to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey A. Taylor, but the White House and the Justice Department have said that no executive branch employee will face a grand jury inquiry.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has told Congress that current and former White House officials who have refused to testify in a congressional inquiry probably did so based on the Justice Department's ruling that Bush's assertion of executive privilege was proper. That means that the Justice Department cannot now criminally charge someone for defying Congress based on its own previous legal advice, he said.
Yesterday, an aide to Mukasey, who is traveling overseas, said the attorney general will review the situation but is likely to stand by that position.
House Democrats had looked ahead. They included in yesterday's resolution a second provision that allows the House general counsel to file a civil lawsuit in federal courts to compel Bolten's and Miers's testimony.
Democrats hope that this strategy will let them push the matter into federal courts, where they think they have a chance of at least establishing a legal precedent on executive privilege.
"I think we still have to establish what the law is," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who has helped lobby rural and moderate Democrats for five months to support the contempt motions.
Republicans said the House Judiciary Committee should accept the White House's offer of limited testimony to learn as much as they can before Bush leaves office next year. "I don't think throwing the president's chief of staff in jail is going to do the trick," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.).
Many Republicans accused the Democrats of avoiding the more important business on an expiring surveillance law. "It's security for America versus partisan politics," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.).
Ultimately, most Republicans stormed off the floor and refused to vote on the contempt citations. Only three Republicans -- Reps. Walter B. Jones (N.C.), Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.) and Ron Paul (Tex.) -- supported the contempt citations.