WASHINGTON - The Senate Judiciary Committee inched forward Thursday in its struggle with the White House over subpoenas demanding information from current and former Bush administration officials about the firing of several United States attorneys last year.
The committee's chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said he was formally rejecting White House claims that the subpoenaed officials, including President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, were protected by executive privilege from being compelled to cooperate with an investigation into whether the prosecutors were fired for political reasons.
By rejecting the administration's claims, Mr. Leahy took the next procedural step toward seeking to enforce the subpoenas in court, a step that could require the intervention of the new attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, who has suggested that he wants a better relationship with Congress than was built by his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.
Judiciary Committee aides said the panel would soon vote on contempt citations for the administration officials. But even if the citations are ultimately approved by the committee and then the full Senate, it remains unclear what happens next, since the administration has suggested that it will not allow the Justice Department to go to court to enforce the subpoenas. Customarily, Congressional subpoenas are enforced by the department on behalf of the House or the Senate.
"I have given the White House's claims of executive privilege and immunity careful consideration," Mr. Leahy said in his declaration Thursday. "I hereby rule that those claims are not legally valid to excuse current and former White House officials from appearing."
Dana M. Perino, the president's chief spokeswoman, said White House aides were perplexed by Mr. Leahy's action.
"I don't understand why he continues to have this rope-a-dope that's not going to go anywhere," Ms. Perino said.
© 2007 The New York Times