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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush set up an anticipated court battle with the Democratic-led Congress on Thursday by refusing to comply with subpoenas in its widening probe of fired federal prosecutors.
"The president has decided to assert executive privilege and therefore the White House will not be making any production in response to these subpoenas for documents," White House counsel Fred Fielding wrote lawmakers.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy shot back, "Increasingly, the president and vice president feel they are above the law --- in America no one is above law."
"We will take the necessary steps to enforce our subpoenas, backed by the full force of law so that Congress and the public can get to the truth behind this matter," said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Leahy likened Bush's action to the only U.S. president ever to resign, calling it "Nixonian stonewalling,"
The subpoenas were issued two weeks ago by Leahy and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. They set Thursday as the deadline for turning over most documents.
Leahy and Conyers are investigating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' firing last year of nine of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales, under pressure to resign, and Bush insist the dismissals were justified but mishandled.
Lawmakers have questioned if partisan politics played a role and said it appears that in at least some cases a U.S. attorney may have been dismissed to influence a politically sensitive criminal investigation.
"The charges alleged in this investigation are serious -- including obstruction of justice and misleading Congress -- and the White House should be as committed to this investigation as the Congress," Conyers said.
In claiming executive privilege, Bush adopted a legal doctrine that has been occasionally invoked with mixed success throughout U.S. history to shield presidents and their aides from having to answer questions or turn over information to Congress or grand juries.
Fielding made the case for Bush's executive privilege in a letter to Leahy and Conyers.
"Presidents would not be able to fulfill their responsibilities if their advisers -- on fear of being commanded to Capitol Hill to testify or having their documents produced to Congress -- were reluctant to communicate openly and honestly in the course of rendering advice and reaching decisions," Fielding wrote.
Democrats made it clear that they intend to go to court to challenge Bush's claim of executive privilege, but there was no immediate indication when they would do so.
They predicted they would prevail but the case could drag deep into next year when Bush will be wrapping up his second term and voters will be getting ready to elect his successor.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary committee, said he believed the case could remain unresolved the day Bush leaves office in January 2009.
"It is my hope that before we try to go to court here, that we try to resolve these matters through negotiations," said Specter, who voted to authorize the subpoenas. "We ought to stop the shadow boxing (and) get what information we can."
The White House also indicated Bush would invoke executive privilege to shield former aides Sara Taylor and Harriet Miers, who have been subpoenaed to testify to Congress next month.
Bush's refusal to comply with the subpoenas for White House documents -- including ones from Taylor and Miers -- came a day after Leahy subpoenaed documents in an unrelated probe into the president's warrantless domestic spying program begun shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Setting up another possible showdown, Leahy gave the administration until July 18 to turn over those materials that the White House has declared off limits.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky