House Democrats will postpone votes on criminal contempt citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, while congressional leaders work with President Bush on a bipartisan stimulus package to fend off an economic downturn, according to party leaders and leadership aides.
Senior Democrats have decided that holding a controversial vote on the contempt citations, which have already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, would "step on their message" of bipartisan unity in the midst of the stimulus package talks.
Bush, citing executive privilege, has refused to allow Bolten or Miers to testify before the House Judiciary panel about the prosecutor purge. And former deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove was barred by the administration from appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the same issue.
"Right now, we're focused on working in a bipartisan fashion on [the] stimulus," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), indicating that the contempt vote is not expected for weeks, depending on how quickly the stimulus package moves.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said "no decision has been made" as to when a criminal contempt vote would be held by the House.
The Judiciary Committee approved contempt citations against Bolten and Miers on July 25, but Pelosi has yet to bring the measures to the floor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved similar contempt citations against Bolten and Rove shortly before Congress adjourned in December.
The White House has declined to turn over internal documents sought by House and Senate Democrats looking into the U.S. attorney firings. And White House counsel Fred Fielding has offered only very limited circumstances under which current and former top White House aides can be interviewed about the firings.
Miers, a lawyer now back in private practice in Dallas, cited a White House claim of executive privilege and declined to appear at a July 12 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.
White House aides have dismissed the prospect of a contempt battle with the Democratic-controlled Congress as a distraction from more pressing work, such as dealing with the war in Iraq and the nation's sagging economy.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also threatened to prevent Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who would represent the Congress in a legal battle with the White House, from going to court to enforce the subpoenas. And Gonzales' successor, Michael Mukasey, declined during his confirmation hearing to say definitively how he would handle the issue.
Pelosi, who personally supports the contempt citations, has gotten mixed messages from her own leaders, as well as rank-and-file members, on whether to move ahead, although it is clear that there are not now enough votes for the citations to be approved by the House, according to Democratic insiders.
"When we have the votes, we'll go ahead with this. Right now, the votes are just not there," said one top House Democratic insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and other members of his panel have pressed Democratic leaders to hold the contempt vote, arguing that a failure to move would set a dangerous precedent that could weaken the Congress in any future investigations of the White House.
Conyers' staff declined to comment Tuesday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has not received any word from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when a floor vote on contempt citations might occur.
"Sen. Reid is consulting with Sen. [Patrick] Leahy [D-Vt.] and others when to hold a vote," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley.
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