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Congressional Panel Gears to Cite White House Official for Contempt


The legal confrontation between President Bush and Congress over documents and other information sought by lawmakers could soon escalate. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the House Judiciary Committee meets later Wednesday to vote on whether to cite one current and one former White House official for contempt of Congress, in a constitutional standoff likely to end up in the courts.

The Democratic-controlled House judiciary panel, and its Senate counterpart, have moved steadily closer to an all-out constitutional clash with the White House over investigations into the firing of eight U.S. federal prosecutors.

Although prosecutors are subject to replacement at any time under any administration, some of those dismissed told Congress earlier this year that they received inappropriate contacts from Republican lawmakers or staff about criminal investigations.

Since the controversy over allegations of politicization of the Justice Department began, President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have asserted that the attorneys were not dismissed for improper political reasons.

Democrats pressed ahead with subpoenas to compel the White House to provide documents and other material, and allow testimony by current and former White House aides.

Acting on behalf of President Bush, White House lawyers claimed executive privilege, asserting that there is no requirement to share information concerning internal administration deliberations with Congress or permit testimony.

In another step last week, the White House announced it would not allow the Justice Department to prosecute members of the executive branch for contempt of Congress.

After one former White House aide, Harriet Miers, failed to show up, a House judiciary subcommittee formally ruled White House explanations legally invalid.

Congresswoman Linda Sanchez said White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, who is the subject of a subpoena, is required to produce documents.

"The White House is refusing not only to produce documents pursuant to the subpoena, but also to even explain why the documents are being withheld," she said. "In effect, the White House is asking Congress and the American people to simply trust on blind faith that the documents are appropriately being kept secret. Our system of government does not permit the White House to demand this type of blind faith and secrecy."

Republicans accuse Democrats of engaging in a political charade designed to damage the president.

"It is a core responsibility of Congress to oversee the executive branch," said Congressman Chris Cannon, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. "But after all the investigations we have done on this matter, it is resulted in no evidence of wrongdoing in the removal of the U.S. attorneys. Instead, we have damaged the Justice Department, diminished Congress, and have landed at the threshold of contempt proceedings against Harriet Miers and the White House."

Wednesday's meeting of the full House Judiciary Committee follows more confrontation Tuesday between Attorney General Gonzales and the Senate judiciary panel.

Gonzales, who has President Bush's support, has resisted calls for his resignation, pledging to fix problems at the Department of Justice emanating from he calls mistakes under his watch.

Senate judiciary chairman Pat Leahy had this exchange with the attorney general.

Leahy: If a house of Congress certified a contempt citation against former or current officials for failing to appear or comply with a congressional subpoena, would you permit the U.S. attorney to carry out the law to refer the matter to a grand jury and therefore fulfill the constitutional duty to faithfully execute the law, or would you block the execution of the law?

Gonzales: Mr. chairman, your question relates to an ongoing controversy which I am recused from. I am not going to answer that question.

Leahy: Is there anybody left in the Department of Justice who could answer the question?

Gonzales: Of course there is.

Leahy: Who?

Gonzales: With respect to these kinds of decisions it would be made by the solicitor general.

Gonzales received this warning from the ranking Senate committee Republican Arlen Specter

"The chairman has already said that the committee is going to review your testimony very carefully, to see if your credibility has not been breached to the point of being actionable," he said.

Specter termed patently unreasonable the White House's continuing insistence that any testimony take place without transcripts, although he held out hope that Congress and the White House can reach some accommodation.

Referring to the administration's order blocking Justice Department action on a potential congressional contempt citation, Senator Leahy warned Gonzales that questions about alleged executive branch lying to Congress, perjury, or destruction of evidence or obstruction of justice would soon be "real issues [and] not just debating points."