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House inches toward constitutional showdown with contempt vote

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: White House spokesman calls House panel vote "pathetic"
  • House Judiciary Committee votes to cite two White House aides for contempt
  • Decision now goes to full House for approval
  • Former counsel Harriet Miers, Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten to be cited
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to cite two White House aides -- one current, one former -- for contempt of Congress, another step toward a constitutional showdown between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Bush administration.

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Former White House counsel Harriet Miers refused to appear at a Senate hearing on July 12.

The committee voted 22-17 along party lines to approve a report calling for contempt citations against former White House counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten for failing to comply with subpoenas issued in the investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

The panel's decision now goes to the House floor for a vote.

The full House is unlikely to take up the issue before the August recess, a Democratic leadership aide told CNN.

"This is not a step that as chairman I take easily or lightly, but it is one I believe necessary -- not only to allow us to gain an accurate picture but to protect our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government," said committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Michigan, at the start of the meeting.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called the contempt citations "pathetic" and said the citations are "not likely to go anywhere." He said the Democratic leaders of Congress have been pursuing a "fishing expedition" over the firings that has turned up nothing. Video Watch the White House reaction to the citations »

"What you have right now is partisanship on Capitol Hill that quite often boils down to insults, insinuations, inquisitions and investigations rather than pursuing the normal business of trying to pass major pieces of legislation, such as appropriations bills," Snow said.

The citations were requested in response to Miers' and Bolten's failure to comply with subpoenas issued by the committee for documents and testimony, including Miers' refusal even to appear at her scheduled July 12 hearing.

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White House counsel Fred Fielding alerted the committee on June 28 that the White House would not provide the documents as required by the subpoena, asserting President Bush's executive privilege.

"The investigation did not begin with the White House but has ended up there only after a review of thousands of pages of documents and obtaining the testimony and interviews of 20 current and former Department of Justice employees," Conyers said.

"We have been open at all times to reasonable compromise and have been fully respectful and cognizant of the prerogatives of the executive branch."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hopes "the seriousness of the charges and the actions taken by the committee will lead the administration to negotiate on how they will release the information to the Congress of the United States, which they have a constitutional responsibility to do."

Republicans argued that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bush administration, and that if the committee wanted the truth, it should take up an offer by Fielding to have White House officials be interviewed in private.

"How can the majority say they want answers and then pass up the opportunity to get those answers?" asked Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Democrats countered that under Fielding's proposal, the officials would not be under oath and there would be no transcript.

"What I am not open to is accepting a take-it-or-leave-it offer which would not allow us access to the information we need, would not even provide for a transcript and would prevent us from seeking additional information in the future," Conyers said.

Some Republican committee members expressed fears that moving ahead on a contempt citation in the U.S. attorneys' investigation would weaken Congress' position in future confrontations.

"Some may argue that the stakes in this confrontation are so high we can't afford the risk that we might lose," Conyers said.

"And I would say to them that if we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up, where privilege can be asserted on the thinnest basis and in the broadest possible manner, then we've already lost. We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee or any other."

Smith said the proposal that Bush is asserting something improper is a "myth" and that the committee sentiment would be different if there were a Democratic president.

"The majority knows that it would leap to the barricades of executive privilege if a Democrat were in the White House, just as it did when the Clintons were there, bobbing and weaving in Whitewater, around Paula Jones and away from Monica Lewinsky -- trying to sweep it all under the rug," Smith argued.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, said that instead of the contempt citations, the committee should direct the House clerk to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, exclusively on the executive privilege claim.

"That would be a chance to resolve a dispute between two equal branches of government," he added.

But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said, "There is no precedent for not even showing up" to testify. "If we don't challenge it, it will most definitely affect our ability to get information in the future. It will legitimize this refusal, this contemptuous refusal, to even appear."

If the full House approves the contempt citations, the Justice Department -- which is at the center of the controversy -- will make the decision about whether to pursue the citations, Snow said.

The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia would have to present the citations to a federal judge in District Court.

However, the Justice Department on Monday sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee saying that it will not present the citations to the court even if the House votes for them.

Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, said the department's position was "that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the president or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege."

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The Bush administration has insisted that the prosecutors' firings were handled properly, but some critics have alleged the attorneys were forced out for political motives and, in one case, to allow a protege of White House political guru Karl Rove to take one of the posts.

The controversy has led to the resignations of at least three top Justice Department officials and triggered widespread criticism of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who repeatedly told a Senate committee in April that he did not recall details of the firings. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About U.S. House Committee on the JudiciaryThe White House

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