WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A second U.S. congressional panel authorized subpoenas of White House aides on Thursday, with Democrats pushing to expand a high-stakes probe into the firing of federal prosecutors.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, on a voice vote, cleared the way for subpoenas of Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, and others if they refuse to voluntarily provide sworn testimony to Congress.
A House Judiciary subcommittee authorized subpoenas on Wednesday, but so far none has been issued.
Bush has vowed to oppose any attempt to compel aides to testify under oath in probes into whether last year’s dismissal of eight of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys was politically motivated.
The president offered this week to have his aides meet with lawmakers under conditions that Democrats and even some of Bush’s fellow Republicans have called unacceptable.
“We’re told that we can have a closed-door meeting with no transcript, not under oath, limited number of people, and the White House will determine what the agenda is. That, to me, is nothing,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
Democrats on the Senate panel sent a letter to the White House rejecting its conditions, saying they would constrain their ability to investigate.
A separate letter from top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said the White House proposal would “not facilitate a full and fair inquiry” and called it “an invitation to confusion.”
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president’s offer still stood.
“We have presented an opportunity for the Congress to get to the bottom of the matter, but unfortunately these letters show they are not as interested in ascertaining the facts than a political fishing expedition,” Perino said.
House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the White House had made a “good-faith effort” to provide Congress with the information it needed but that “Democrats on Capitol Hill want a political sideshow.”
Without a compromise, a lengthy court fight could ensue, possibly lasting until after Bush leaves office in January 2009. Republicans and Democrats have urged that common ground be sought.
Any court battle probably would turn on the issue of executive privilege, a legal doctrine invoked occasionally throughout U.S. history to shield presidents and their aides from having to answer questions or turn over information to Congress or legal probes.
Critics accuse the administration of firing prosecutors to make room for its allies or because it felt some were too tough on Republicans and too easy on Democrats.
The administration has said while the dismissals were mishandled, they were justified, and it denied making any threats. Officials also note a president can fire a U.S. prosecutor at any time.
The Senate committee authorized subpoenas of Rove along with former White House counsel Harriet Miers and deputy White House counsel William Kelley.
Investigators are particularly interested in Rove. One of his former aides replaced a fired prosecutor, who later told ousted colleagues the administration might retaliate if they complained.
Recently released documents showed prosecutors were judged on such factors as their effectiveness as well as loyalty to Bush and their boss, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The dismissals have prompted calls for Gonzales to be replaced as the chief U.S. law enforcement officer. Bush has said he maintains confidence in him and “NBC Nightly News” reported that Gonzales, who was in St. Louis on Thursday for meetings with U.S. attorneys, again brushed off calls he resign.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Steve Holland and Peter Szekely