Congress Moves Toward Fight with White House

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Congress is closer to a legal standoff with the White House. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected Thursday to give its chairman the power to subpoena White House aides over the firings of eight federal prosecutors. The House Judiciary Committee did the same Wednesday.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

The White House has gone on the offensive over the right to fire eight U.S. attorneys. President Bush says Democrats are playing politics by threatening to subpoena White House aides in the matter. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to give its chairman that power this morning. A House subcommittee did the same thing yesterday.

NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: This fight is not one the White House anticipated. After all, U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and he decides when he wants a change. But questions arose. Were the firings for purely political reasons? What was the role of White House advisers Karl Rove and Harriet Miers? And what about the Justice Department's inability to provide a consistent explanation of why the prosecutors were removed?

Mr. VIN WEBER (Political Strategist): Well, I think, to be blunt, that the attorney general and his people mishandled it at first.

GONYEA: Vin Weber is a Republican political strategist.

Mr. WEBER: They did not answer the questions the way they should have answered them. They seemed to contradict one another. And now it seems to me after a week or so of some confusion about that, that the administration's response is in order. It's clear they're defending themselves.

GONYEA: If the administration seemed in disarray on the story last week, this week they've been trying for a clean start. The president himself made an announcement at the White House late Tuesday afternoon. He acknowledged confusion in getting the story out.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Today I'm also announcing the following steps my administration is taking to correct the record and demonstrate our willingness to work with the Congress. First, the attorney general and his key staff...

GONYEA: He also laid out a formal offer to the Congress. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other Justice Department officials would testify in the matter. Also included was the promised release of more documents, specifically any related e-mail communication between the White House and the Justice Department. As for White House advisors Rove and Miers, they would be made available. But citing executive privilege, the president said they cannot give formal testimony, meaning no oath, no transcript, no cameras.

At his regular briefing yesterday, press secretary Tony Snow had no qualms about driving home how good the administration thinks this proposal is.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): We have made not only a good faith offer, but one, a generous, reasonable offer, extremely generous offer, an extraordinarily generous offer on our part. This is a very generous offer. I've used the term several times, and it is.

GONYEA: Then there's the other part of the newly focused White House message. It's aimed at Democrats in Congress.

Mr. SNOW: Do you want to get at the truth, or do you want to create a political spectacle? Those are the options that are laid out.

GONYEA: Democrats quickly rejected that characterization. John Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which now has the authority to subpoena White House officials.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): I want to make it clear that this is not a side show.

GONYEA: Democrats also insist that the best way to get at the truth is sworn testimony. Strategist Vin Weber says the White House has been preparing for a confrontation with Congress over executive privilege ever since Democrats regained the majority. He says the White House sees the potential for the public to view this as a distraction for more important issues. Weber says another element of the White House strategy is this warning to Democrats.

Mr. WEBER: Your political risk is it may be even greater than ours in escalating this confrontation to unreasonable levels. But there's no question it's a high confrontation, it's a high-risk confrontation for both sides, and both sides are going to feel the heat on this.

GONYEA: Certainly the risks for both sides would make it seem likely that talks will continue, according to Republican consultant Bill Greener.

Mr. BILL GREENER (Political Consultant): Will we see a compromise? I don't know. I surely hope that the parties involved will be able to work out something that's mutually agreeable, and I'm not shocked or dismayed that until that is accomplished, that people are staking out particular positions.

GONYEA: But so far neither side has indicated any readiness to move from its demands. And White House spokesman Tony Snow says if subpoenas are issued, then the current offer will be taken off the table.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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