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House panel votes to allow subpoenas in attorney firings

CNN | March 21, 2007

Story Highlights

NEW: Subcommitte vote authorizes chairman to issue subpoenas
Bush compromise offer would not allow transcripts of staff testimony
"Executive privilege" cited as reason Bush won't allow sworn testimony

House Democrats voted Wednesday to give their leaders the authority to force White House officials to testify on the firings of U.S. attorneys.

President Bush on Tuesday offered to let Karl Rove, his top political adviser, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers give unsworn, off-the-record testimony.

A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday rejected the offer on a voice vote. Democrats contend the lack of transcripts under the Bush plan would prevent them from challenging any inconsistencies in testimony.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Bush's offer was unacceptable.

"It is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said in a written statement.

The committees are considering using subpoenas to force Rove, Miers and their two deputies to reveal what they knew about the reasons behind the firings of at least seven U.S. attorneys.

The House Judiciary subcommittee vote Wednesday authorizes issuing of subpoenas, not the serving of them. That action would come later.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the same issue Thursday.

Bush said sworn testimony by White House officials would breach executive privilege -- the right of the president to have confidential communications with his staff -- and vowed Congress would face a legal fight if subpoenas are issued. ( Watch analysts debate the executive privilege issue Video)

The president can fire federal prosecutors without cause, but lawmakers are questioning whether the firings of several U.S. attorneys were politically motivated.

Justice Department officials say the dismissals of at least seven U.S. attorneys were based on performance or managerial problems, but acknowledged that one fired attorney was pushed out to make way for a Rove protege.

"We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," Bush said Tuesday. "The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows that some are more interested in scoring political points than in understanding the facts. ...

"I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials."

Bush's offer includes allowing a bipartisan group of committee members to interview Rove, Miers and their two deputies -- but not under oath and without a transcript of the proceedings.

Bush said he will not allow Rove and the others to testify under oath because it would damage their ability to give the president "candid advice."

But, he said, "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his key staff will testify before the relevant congressional committees to explain how the decision was made and for what reasons."

"I don't accept his offer," Leahy said in his written statement. "It is not constructive."

Leahy also complained about the 3,000 documents the Justice Department handed over to the committees late Monday, saying redactions in the documents make them unworkable.

"Instead of freely and fully providing relevant documents to the investigating committees, they have only selectively sent documents, after erasing large portions that they do not want to see the light of day," he said. ( Watch how documents raise the question whether Gonzales was in the loop )

Senator says panel needs transcripts of testimony

The president's offer also includes communications between White House staffers and the Justice Department on the firings, although not communications between various White House officials on the matter.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the offer from the White House "is incomplete."

"We would be able to interview the four people we requested, Karl Rove, Counsel Miers and their two assistants, but only in private, not under oath and with no transcript," he said. "And the last part of this is the most troubling of all. When there's no transcript what do we do when people's recollections are different? Furthermore, when there is no transcript, and what, say, Karl Rove says contradicts what somebody else has said, what do we do?"

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the administration could be expected to challenge any subpoena in court, meaning the legal proceedings could outlast the Bush presidency.

"It goes to the district court and then potentially the Supreme Court and you're talking about an administration with 21 months to go. You can do the math. Courts don't work that fast," Toobin said on CNN's "American Morning."

Critics say firings abused Patriot Act

Critics of the firing of the prosecutors said the administration abused the Patriot Act in circumventing the usual confirmation procedure in naming their replacements.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 94-2 to pass a bill that cancels a provision of the Patriot Act that allowed federal prosecutors to be appointed and serve without confirmation by the Senate.

The controversy over the firings has cost the job of Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and prompted several from both sides of the aisle to call for Gonzales' resignation. But on Tuesday, Bush said Gonzales has his full support.

"I am confident he acted appropriately," Bush said from the White House. "I regret that it turned into a public spectacle."

"There is no indication [after reviewing the matter] that anyone did anything improper," the president said. ( Watch the president defend Gonzales )

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.


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