The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted to issue contempt citations against two White House aides who refused to answer subpoenas for information on the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
The panel voted 22-17 to issue citations against Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel. Both refused to comply with subpoenas during the committee's investigation into whether politics was a factor in the firings.
The vote advances the issues to the full House and sets the stage for a constitutional showdown with the president. President Bush has maintained that Bolten and Miers were immune from subpoenas because their documents and testimony are protected by executive privilege.
Committee Chairman John Conyers said the panel had nothing to lose by advancing the citations because it could not allow presidential aides to flout Congress' authority. Republicans warned that a contempt citation would lose in federal court even if it got that far.
The drive to pass the citations on to a federal prosecutor comes after nearly seven months of a Democratic-driven investigation into whether the U.S. attorney firings were directed by the White House to influence corruption cases in favor of Republican candidates.
House Judiciary Committee Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), reject that claim and have drafted a resolution for vote Wednesday citing Miers and Bolten with contempt of Congress, a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.
The panel's vote is the first step on the road to a possible constitutional showdown in federal court.
White House Counsel Fred Fielding has offered to make top administration officials available for private, off-the-record interviews about the administration's role in the firings. But he has invoked executive privilege and directed Miers, Bolten and the Republican National Committee to withhold almost all relevant documents. Miers did not even appear at a hearing to which she had been summoned, infuriating Democrats.
Democrats rejected Fielding's "take-it-or-leave-it" offer and advised lawyers for Miers and Bolten that they were in danger of being held in contempt of Congress.
If the citation passes the full House by a simple majority, it would then be transfered to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The man who holds that job, Jeff Taylor, is a Bush appointee.
The Justice Department reiterated the White House position in a letter to Conyers on Tuesday. Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, cited the department's "long-standing" position, "articulated during administrations of both parties, that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the president or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege."
Benczkowski said it also was the department's view that the same position applies to Miers.
Contempt of Congress is a federal crime, but a sitting president has the authority to commute the sentence or pardon anyone convicted or accuses of any federal crime.
Congress can hold a person in contempt if that person obstructs proceedings or an inquiry by a congressional committee. Congress has used contempt citations for two main reasons: to punish someone for refusing to testify or refusing to provide documents or answers, and for bribing or libeling a member of Congress.
The last time a full chamber of Congress voted on a contempt citation was 1983. The House voted 413-0 to cite former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle for contempt of Congress for refusing to appear before a House committee. Lavelle was later acquitted in court of the contempt charge, but she was convicted of perjury in a separate trial.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press