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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A panel of the House Judiciary Committee took a first step today towards citing Harriet Miers for contempt. She's President Bush's former White House counsel and a one-time nominee for the Supreme Court.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Dividing along party lines, the panel voted seven to five to reject Miers' assertion that she had no legal obligation to appear in response to a subpoena. Miers' lawyer had initially indicated she would at least show up at a hearing probing the administration's mass firing of federal prosecutors. But Miers reversed course after the White House notified her that in its view, current and former senior advisers to the President have absolute immunity from being called to testify before a congressional committee.

Subcommittee Chair Linda Sanchez noted that senior White House advisers have testified before Congress 74 times in the last 60 years. But ranking Republican Christopher Cannon countered that if Democrats really want to hear from White House aides now, all they have to do is accept the White House offer of private unsworn interviews. Congressional subpoenas, he said, won't be sustained by the courts unless there's evidence of their necessity.

Representative CHRISTOPHER CANNON (Republican, Utah): The truth appears to be simple. The White House's involvement in the Justice Department's review was neither nefarious nor in-depth. Tethering on the brink of threatened contempt proceedings, we need the majority to drop the smokescreen of their accusations and present real hard evidence.

TOTENBERG: Committee Chairman John Conyers responded.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): We can't produce the evidence of misconduct because the witness won't come. I mean, she might have put us our minds to rest about what we're concerned about. The take-it-or-leave-it offer that you referred to would be unacceptable to a high school student. I mean, no transcripts, no oath, no nothing - we could meet in a pub and have refreshments and do that.

TOTENBERG: Conyers was benign compared to other Democrats like Steve Cohen.

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): I can't fathom a private citizen getting a subpoena to come before this body and not showing up. What we've got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be.

TOTENBERG: Republican Trent Franks disagreed.

Representative TRENT FRANKS (Republican, Arizona): To breach this immunity power of the president is a recipe for total chaos. And if this committee goes forward, there will be a court case and we will be embarrassed, and congressional prerogative will be diminished.

TOTENBERG: Democrat Mel Watt said he could no longer give President Bush the benefit of the doubt.

Representative MEL WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): The president is taking his thumb in our eye and saying I have some privilege or…

Rep. CANNON: Madame Chair, I've sat here trying not to respond, but I believe the gentleman's words are unparliamentary. He's called the president as a liar. He's talked about the president sticking his thumb in the eye of people. I believe that is unparliamentary language and I ask for these words to be taken down.

TOTENBERG: That last was Republican Cannon, asking that Watt be formally rebuked.

Watt replied.

Rep. WATT: I think the American people know what we are dealing with here - an imperial president who thinks he is above the law. And we have a responsibility to say to the American people and to this president…

Rep. CANNON: I reluctantly…

Rep. WATT: …that he is not above the law…

Rep. CANNON: Madame Chair, these are unparliamentary words.

Rep. WATT: These are not unparliamentary words.

Rep. CANNON: They are. We have rules of decorum in Congress, and the gentleman has gone beyond what those rules allow several times.

TOTENBERG: The subcommittee chairwoman ruled that Watt's words were harsh, but not unparliamentary.

Cannon, then appealed her ruling, asking first for a voice vote and then a recorded vote. The Utah Republican lost again on a party line vote.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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