WASHINGTON Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday urged that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales be investigated for possible perjury and issued a subpoena to senior White House political adviser Karl Rove.
The actions were part of an escalating battle between the Democratic-led Congress and the White House that appeared likely to end up in court.
Four Democratic senators wrote U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement asking he appoint an independent counsel to examine the truthfulness of Gonzales' testimony to Congress on such matters as his firing of nine federal prosecutors and President George W. Bush's warrantless domestic-spying program.
"We ask that you immediately appoint an independent special counsel from outside the Department of Justice to determine whether Attorney General Gonzales may have misled Congress or perjured himself," they wrote.
The letter was from Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, all members of the Judiciary Committee.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, subpoenaed two more White House aides -- Rove and deputy political director J. Scott Jennings -- in his panel's probe of the fired prosecutors.
"Not since the darkest days of the Nixon Administration have we seen efforts to corrupt federal law enforcement for partisan political gain and such efforts to avoid accountability," Leahy said.
'MORE OUT OF CONTROL'
White House spokesman Tony Fratto replied, "Every day this Congress gets a little more out of control -- a new call for a special prosecutor, a new investigation launched, a new subpoena issued."
The White House has said the firings of the prosecutors were justified, and has rejected bipartisan calls for Gonzales to resign.
Gonzales testified earlier this year that "there has not been any serious disagreement" within the administration about its surveillance program, which critics denounced as illegal. Bush has contended wartime powers allowed him to conduct it.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told Congress in May, however, that concerns about the program were voiced at a 2004 meeting and a number officials had threatened to resign.
Testifying at a hearing by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Thursday, FBI Director Robert Mueller backed up Comey's version of the meeting.
"The discussion was on a national -- an NSA (National Security Agency) program that has been much discussed, yes," Mueller said. Asked if he had had serious reservations about it, Mueller said, "Yes."
Gonzales drew fire at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday where lawmakers challenged his truthfulness and ability to lead the Justice Department.
Following his appearance, the White House and Justice Department said they believed Gonzales had been honest.
The four Democratic senators who wrote Clement argued that the attorney general "has provided -- at a minimum -- half truths and misleading statements."
In April, Gonzales told Congress he had not talked to potential witnesses about his firing of the prosecutors. But the next month a former aide testified he had raised the topic with her.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday recommended contempt charges against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to provide subpoenaed information and testimony about the fired prosecutors. The White House contends Bush's claim of executive privilege shields them.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has broken party ranks by helping lead the charge against Gonzales, denounced the Democratic call for a special prosecutor and predicted it would be rejected.
Specter charged that Schumer, one of those asking for the special counsel, has tried to exploit the matter for political gain as head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
(Additional reporting by Jim Vicini, Matt Spetalnick, Jeremy Pelofsky)