WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers set up a possible court showdown with President George W. Bush on Wednesday by summoning two of his former aides to testify about the controversial firing of federal prosecutors last year.
Bush could challenge the subpoenas issued to former White House counsel Harriet Miers and political director Sara Taylor although the White House said no decision had been made.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a letter to Taylor that she had until June 28 to turn over documents related to the inquiry and must appear before his committee on July 11.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, meanwhile, issued subpoenas for documents and testimony from Miers, who was ordered to testify on July 12.
Bush and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales say the firing of nine of the 93 U.S. attorneys last year was justified though mishandled.
Democrats and some of Bush’s fellow Republicans have questioned whether partisan politics improperly played a role in the dismissal plan, which originated at the White House. One of the fired prosecutors was replaced by a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove.
The subpoenas set up a possible court fight between Congress and Bush, who had earlier vowed to oppose any attempt to force aides to provide sworn testimony.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said it was far too early to say if the matter would end up in court.
“We are going to review the subpoenas and will respond appropriately,” Snow added. “At this juncture it’s clear that they are trying to create some media drama.”
Any court battle probably would turn on executive privilege, a legal doctrine invoked occasionally throughout U.S. history to shield presidents and their aides from answering questions or turning over information to Congress or grand juries.
Leahy said, “The White House cannot have it both ways -- it cannot stonewall congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses, while claiming nothing improper occurred.”
Neil Eggleston, an attorney representing Taylor, said, “Ms. Taylor takes her responsibilities as a citizen very seriously and she is hopeful the White House and the Congress are quickly able to work out an appropriate agreement on her cooperation with the Senate’s proceedings.”
A top aide to Gonzales at the Justice Department, Monica Goodling, recently testified after receiving immunity from prosecution and told lawmakers that political considerations were often involved in hiring.
Leahy and Conyers also issued subpoenas for other White House documents relevant to their investigations.
Earlier this week, Republicans blocked a Democratic bid to obtain a symbolic Senate vote of no confidence in Gonzales, who, with the support of Bush, has withstood bipartisan calls to resign.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Caren Bohan