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Prosecutor Controversy is Latest in History of Confrontations Between Congress and White House


President Bush and Democrats in Congress appear on a collision course over whether Congress has the right to demand testimony under oath from White House aides in connection with the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. The confrontation could eventually wind up in the federal court system, but historically, presidents and congressional leaders have often reached a compromise that avoids the courts. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

At issue is a demand from congressional Democrats that White House aides, including President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, testify under oath about what involvement they had, if any, in the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.

House and Senate committees have authorized subpoenas that would compel testimony from White House aides, an approach favored by the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"Let us have it in public," said Leahy. "Let us find out what is going on, allow both Republicans and Democrats to ask questions, have them under oath and clear this matter up."

Leahy and other Democrats rejected a White House offer to have the aides interviewed informally by members of Congress, but in private and not under oath.

President Bush opposes the Democrat's demand for testimony from his aides under oath. Mr. Bush says the prospect of Congress forcing administration officials to reveal their private conversations would undermine the need for the president to get candid advice and would be a disservice to the country.

"The President relies upon his staff to provide him candid advice," said Leahy. "The framers of the Constitution understood this vital role when developing the separate branches of government."

Republicans like former Congressman and House leader Tom DeLay want the president to resist what they believe are political fishing expeditions inspired by Democrats.

"If he is ever going to stop this madness from going on for two years, and it will if he gives in to them, he has got to stand strong right now," said DeLay.

But Democrats insist the time is right to restore some of the traditional checks and balances on the presidency that have been weakened in recent years.

Jim Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia, said, "I think that there has been a constitutional imbalance since 9-11 in terms of the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and what we need is accountability and we need accountability across the board with the executive branch," he said.

President Bush's resistance to congressional demands for testimony from his aides falls under the general principle of what is called executive privilege, which is traditionally invoked to prevent the disclosure of certain confidential deliberations within the White House.

Peter Smith, a legal expert at George Washington University Law School in Washington, said, "It is a constitutional clash because Congress will assert the power to require White House officials to show up and testify, that is what a subpoena does."

"But of course, the president might respond to the subpoena by saying, I am simply not going to authorize them to attend. And then the constitutional conflict is whether Congress can somehow force the White House officials to attend," he added.

Historically, relatively few confrontations between presidents and Congress over executive privilege have ended up in the court system.

When they have, the results were mixed. For example, Presidents Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower had success in resisting congressional demands for information and testimony.

But President Richard Nixon was not so fortunate. Nixon cited executive privilege before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 in hopes of preventing incriminating White House tapes from becoming public. He lost and eventually was forced to resign for his role in the Watergate scandal.

In the current impasse between President Bush and Congress, law professor Peter Smith believes both sides are likely to reach a compromise at some point, though it may take a while.

"I think it is highly likely to play out in the court of public opinion and not a court of law, and that is because the pressure on one branch or the other to give in at some point will become too powerful to resist, and therefore it will be resolved without having to go to court," said Smith.

President Bush did reverse himself three years ago when he allowed then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the commission probing the 2001 terrorist attacks.

President Bill Clinton also allowed some of his White House aides to testify before the Republican-controlled Congress in the 1990's that was probing various scandals and campaign finance irregularities during his administration.