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Bush Clashes With Congress Over Firings

He refuses to let Rove testify. Democrats are set to issue subpoenas.

A `Fishing Expedition'

The stage is set for a constitutional battle.

March 21, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Inviting a showdown with congressional leaders over the firing of U.S. attorneys, a defiant President Bush on Tuesday refused to make White House political strategist Karl Rove available for public questioning under oath.

Bush agreed to let lawmakers interview Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers in private, but the concessions failed to placate Democrats, who have accused the White House and Justice Department of dismissing eight federal prosecutors for political reasons.

The House and Senate Judiciary committees readied plans for today and Thursday to authorize subpoenas for Rove and other officials.

Bush said his staff would oppose the subpoenas, setting the stage for a possible constitutional confrontation in which past and current members of the White House staff could be held in contempt of Congress.

Bush, speaking to reporters in the early evening after returning from a trip to Missouri, criticized Democrats for trying to "score political points." He urged them to accept his offer of private interviews with Rove and Miers, and he pledged to release all White House documents related to the firings.

"These extraordinary steps demonstrate a reasonable solution to the issue," Bush said. "However, we will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants.

"It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key officials and White House documents available."

Bush also firmed up his support for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales amid rising calls for his resignation. "I've got confidence in him," Bush said.

The president denied the firings were politically motivated. He also denied they were meant to shut down corruption investigations of Republicans or to speed up probes into Democratic wrongdoing.

"The Justice Department, with the approval of the White House, believed new leadership in these positions would better serve our country," Bush said, describing the moves as "normal and appropriate."

He said the announcement of the decisions and the explanation of the changes had been "confusing and in some cases incomplete." But he promised to "correct the record."

"I'm sorry that the situation has gotten to where it's got," he said. "But that's Washington, D.C., for you. You know, there's a lot of politics in this town."

The administration strategy appeared to set both sides on a collision course unlike any in recent years. Openly defying a subpoena has little precedent.

Congress could vote to find in contempt those who refused to comply, but such a case normally would be prosecuted by the Justice Department, said Beth Nolan, a White House counsel in the Clinton administration.

Nolan said Congress could use other tactics if an official refused to cooperate. They include withholding funding for an agency or refusing to approve administration nominees for executive positions that require Senate confirmation.

Although it would give Democrats a rare opportunity to question Rove, who has become a lightning rod for administration critics, Bush's proposal drew complaints.

"We will move forward to authorize subpoenas for current and former White House and Justice officials, as well as documents," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

He said the panel would "take whatever steps are necessary and within our congressional authority to get to the bottom of what has become a horrible mess that is undermining American trust in our federal criminal justice system."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "It is not constructive and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation or to prejudge its outcome.

"Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That's the formula for true accountability."

Moderate Republicans indicated they wanted to give the White House proposal a chance in the hope of avoiding a fight.

"I would prefer to have the interviews in public, but it is more important to get the information promptly than to have months or years of litigation," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "If we are dissatisfied with the information provided in the manner offered by the president, we can always issue subpoenas."

The exchange came the same day that the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation that would strip the Justice Department of the authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without congressional oversight, and a day after the department released 3,000 documents offering an unusual inside look into how the eight presidential appointees were pushed from office.

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