WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday dared the Democratic-led Congress to fight it in court by refusing to provide information and testimony demanded in an investigation into the firing of federal prosecutors.
White House counsel Fred Fielding, in a letter to two congressional chairmen, called their demands “unreasonable because it represents a substantial incursion into presidential prerogatives.”
Congressional leaders disagreed and made it clear they were prepared for a court battle unless they reach a compromise with the White House on access to documents and witnesses.
“I hope the White House stops this stonewalling and accepts my offer to negotiate a workable solution,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Democrats have sought compromise because a fight over whether Congress or the White House is right could take years to weave its way through the court system and still be undecided when President George W. Bush’s second term ends in January 2009.
Bush is relying on a legal doctrine known as executive privilege, which has been invoked with mixed success to shield presidents and their aides from having to answer questions or turn over information to Congress.
White House spokesman Tony Snow brushed off the threat of a possible congressional contempt citation, saying, “It’s up to them.”
“What we do believe is that we are on perfectly solid legal ground,” Snow said.
Congress wants the documents and testimony to determine if the firing of nine of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys last year was the result of partisan politics and White House efforts to reward supporters.
Bush and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insist the dismissals of the federal prosecutors were justified but mishandled. Gonzales, with Bush’s support, has withstood bipartisan calls to resign.
The White House has offered to allow current and former aides to talk to lawmakers behind closed doors -- but only if it is not sworn testimony and there is no transcript. Leahy and others say the offer is unacceptable.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, “I think, candidly, there’s a lot of posturing going on both sides.”
“I hope we can work it out so that we don’t test the good faith of the executive branch ... or the good faith of the legislative branch,” Specter said.
In his letter, Fielding rejected requests for materials to support Bush’s claim of executive privilege last month in refusing to turn over documents. He also wrote Bush, as expected, was asserting presidential privilege to block subpoenaed testimony by two former aides, Sara Taylor and Harriet Miers.
Taylor, who served as White House political director, has been summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, while Miers, who served as White House counsel, had been ordered to testify before a House panel on Thursday.
“While we remain willing to negotiate with the White House, they adhere to their unacceptable all-or-nothing position, and now will not even seek to properly justify their privilege claims,” said House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
“Contrary to what the White House may believe, it is the Congress and the courts that will decide whether an invocation of executive privilege is valid, not the White House unilaterally,” Conyers said.
There was no immediate indication how much longer Democrats would seek to reach an agreement with the White House before initiating court action.