WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel voted on Wednesday to find former presidential adviser Karl Rove in contempt for defying a subpoena to testify in its probe into suspected political meddling at the Justice Department.
On a party-line vote of 20-14, the Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved a contempt citation against President George W. Bush's former deputy chief of staff and sent it to the full House for approval.
If convicted of contempt of Congress, Rove could face up to a year in jail. But potential appeals could stretch out until after Bush's term ends in January and there is a new Congress.
Regardless, Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said: "The bottom line is this. Mr. Rove breached his obligation to this committee. It is our duty to respond."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee's top Republican, accused Democrats of "conducting witch hunts." Instead, he said, "We should consider bipartisan legislation to reduce the price of gas, reduce crime and secure the borders."
The committee probe is part of a broad Democratic effort to challenge what they see as Bush's unwarranted and even unlawful expansion of his presidential powers during his eight years in office.
The House earlier this year approved contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
They were cited for refusing to comply with subpoenas demanding documents and testimony in a congressional probe into the firing in 2006 of nine of the 93 U.S. attorneys.
Democrats want to question Rove about those dismissals as well as the decision to prosecute former Alabama Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman for bribery. Some lawmakers also want to ask Rove about an inspector general's report that found former Justice Department aides improperly considered politics in hiring decisions.
The Bush administration contends that turning over certain records and requiring testimony would violate the president's rights to private counsel from staff.
The claim of executive privilege is now being challenged in federal court. There may no final ruling before Bush completes his term in January.
Congress has been investigating for more than a year the firing of the prosecutors, which ignited a political firestorm that prompted the resignation of Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general, the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
Critics charge that the prosecutors were dismissed for being too tough in their investigations on Republican politicians and too easy on Democrats. The administration denies such charges and notes that U.S. prosecutors, all presidential appointees, serve at the pleasure of the president.
Siegelman, convicted of a bribery charge, was freed from prison in March pending an appeal. He maintains innocence and contends his prosecution was politically motivated.
Rove has publicly denied any involvement in the Siegelman case. But he has riled Democrats by refusing to testify about the former governor or the fired U.S. attorneys.
At a separate Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said he is working with the Office of Professional Responsibility to finish their investigation into the U.S. attorney firings as soon as possible.
Fine testified about two recent reports that found former top Justice Department aides improperly considered politics in various hiring decisions.
Fine said he did not see a sufficient basis for prosecution, as the violations did not involve criminal laws. He also said he saw no basis for prosecution for lying, as some congressional Democrats have urged.
Fine disagreed with Democratic senators who complained the aides appeared to be getting off without sufficient punishment. "I don't believe they got away with it," he said.
Fine said their actions have been exposed and condemned, one aide faces disciplinary action, it has been recommended that they never be allowed to work again for the federal government, and they could face sanctions as lawyers from their local bar associations.
Editing by David Alexander