WASHINGTON — On two fronts, the Bush administration is engaged in an escalating standoff with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress over its right to keep certain documents secret.
Vice President Dick Cheney refused to tell Congress about private meetings his energy task force had with special interest groups while drafting a national policy. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, had imposed a Thursday deadline for turning over the information.
Also Thursday, a White House official said President Bush is preparing to invoke executive privilege today in refusing to turn over documents to a GOP lawmaker that are related to federal prosecutors' decisions in cases involving Democratic fund-raising abuses.
It would be Bush's first use of the privilege, the right of a president to keep secret the advice and deliberations that go into his decision-making.
Democratic and Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton have invoked executive privilege in response to congressional demands for everything from the Watergate tapes to memos. Clinton cited executive privilege in matters including the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation and the firings of White House travel office employees.
In the Cheney case, his refusal leaves GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker with two options: He can seek a court order to compel the vice president to produce the information--something the GAO has never done--or drop the matter. Walker is expected to issue a statement today.
Cheney isn't asserting executive privilege. Rather, he is challenging Walker's authority to demand to know whom the vice president met with and what they discussed.
Critics of the White House energy plan drafted by Cheney's task force contend that industry leaders were influential in shaping policy. Administration officials defend the secrecy, saying it was necessary to foster a free exchange of ideas.
"We're confident in the strength and persuasiveness of our position," said Cheney spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss.
Bush spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the White House will cooperate with Congress "where it is appropriate, [but] in those areas where there are fishing expeditions," or where Congress is overstepping its authority, "there are important principles that the administration will adhere to."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who has pressed for the information from Cheney, said, "I regret that the president seems intent on forcing this matter to court. I'm confident that GAO will act properly to ensure there is careful oversight of this administration."
Regardless of how the conflict is resolved, some observers believe the White House will ultimately lose politically.
"This one struck me as a pretty reasonable request by Congress," said Stephen Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor.
"I think people want to know what groups are really having a say with the administration. This is the kind of fight which, in the end, the administration will lose one way or the other. They will either give up the names after fighting it out and looking like they had a reason to hide them. Or they'll succeed in not revealing the names, and everybody will then be wondering what it is that was so secretive."
Peter M. Shane, professor of law and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed: "In contests like this, the executive branch always winds up divulging the requested information if Congress is persistent enough."
Instead of going to court, legal experts said, the Democratic-controlled Senate might issue a subpoena. Separately, the conservative legal group Judicial Watch has filed suit in federal court here seeking to force disclosure of the energy task force's private meetings.
Bush, meanwhile, is preparing to invoke executive privilege in refusing to turn over other documents sought by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Burton issued a subpoena Thursday for Justice Department documents related to decisions in cases involving Democratic fund-raising abuses.
A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Bush has accepted White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales' recommendations and is prepared to invoke executive privilege to "create a clear policy that prosecutors' discussions should be private."
"The White House lawyers and the president believe that a fair administration of justice requires that fair and complete deliberations can best be accomplished if the prosecutors are free to think through those options in private," said the administration official.
But Mark Corallo, spokesman for Burton's committee, said the administration's refusal to provide information about the deliberative process "makes oversight of the Justice Department impossible."