WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee voted contempt of Congress citations Wednesday against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and President Bush's former legal counselor, Harriet Miers.
A senior Democratic official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the House itself likely would take up the citations after Congress' August recess. The official declined to speak on the record because no date had been set for the House vote.
Committee Chairman John Conyers said the panel had nothing to lose by advancing the citations because it could not allow presidential aides to flout Congress' authority. Republicans warned that a contempt citation would lose in federal court even if it got that far.
And the White House accused the Democrats of engaging in political theater.
"Now we have a situation where there is an attempt to do something that's never been done in American history, which is to assail the concept of executive privilege which hails back to the administration of George Washington and in particular to use criminal contempt charges against the White House chief of staff and the White House legal counsel," said White House Spokesman Tony Snow.
Snow used two video screens on either side of the White House lectern with images illustrating that the White House has provided documents that, if stacked up, would be twice as high as the White House.
The drive to pass the citations on to a federal prosecutor comes after nearly seven months of a Democratic-driven investigation into whether the U.S. attorney firings were directed by the White House to influence corruption cases in favor of Republican candidates. The administration has denied that, but also has invoked executive privilege on internal White House deliberations on the matter.
White House counsel Fred Fielding had said previously that Miers and Bolten were both absolutely immune from congressional subpoenas -- a position that infuriated lawmakers.
"If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up, where privilege can be asserted on the thinnest basis and in the broadest possible manner, then we have already lost," Conyers, D-Mich., said before the vote. "We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee or any other."
Conyers' predecessor, former Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., argued that Democrats can't win that fight.
A civil lawsuit in federal court would be less perilous for the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, he said, than a constitutional battle over contempt.
"I think that the White House is going to win an argument in court" over the contempt matter, Sensenbrenner told the panel.
"The proper thing to do is to determine the executive privilege claim aside from who said what, who refused to submit to what, who didn't show up to subpoena," the Wisconsin Republican said. Instead, Congress should "direct the general counsel to the clerk of the House of Representatives to file a civil suit," Sensenbrenner added.
Added Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah: "The real argument here is not over the audacity of the White House, but over the strength of our legal argument."
Conyers, however, did not discount Sensenbrenner's suggestion.
The fight over the limits of executive privilege erupted after Miers and Bolten refused to comply with subpoenas compelling testimony and documents about the White House's role in the firings.
Democrats reject Fielding's claims that the White House aides were immune.
Contempt of Congress would be a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence. If the citations win support in the full House, they would be forwarded to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia -- a Bush appointee.
And that's as far as it's likely to go, the Justice Department said in a letter to the committee late Tuesday.
Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, cited the department's "long-standing" position, "articulated during administrations of both parties, that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the president or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege."
Benczkowski said it also was the department's view that the same position applies to Miers, who left the White House earlier this year.
Republicans said Democrats couldn't win this fight, noting the White House has offered to make top presidential aides available for private interviews about their roles in the firings. Republicans also suggested that the Democrats' rejection of the offer leaves only one reason for the dispute: politics.
"If the majority really wanted the facts, it could have had them," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.
If history and self-interest are any guide, the two sides will resolve the dispute before it gets to federal court. Neither side wants a judge to settle the question about the limits of executive privilege, for fear of losing.
But no deal appeared imminent.
Contempt of Congress is a federal crime, but a sitting president has the authority to commute the sentence or pardon anyone convicted or accused of any federal crime.
Congress can hold a person in contempt if that person obstructs proceedings or an inquiry by a congressional committee. Congress has used contempt citations for two main reasons: to punish someone for refusing to testify or refusing to provide documents or answers, and for bribing or libeling a member of Congress.
The last time a full chamber of Congress voted on a contempt citation was 1983. The House voted 413-0 to cite former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle for contempt of Congress for refusing to appear before a House committee. Lavelle was later acquitted in court of the contempt charge, but she was convicted of perjury in a separate trial.
On the Net:
House Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.house.gov/
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