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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In a House committee meeting today, the clerk raised the curtain on a debate that pits Congress against the White House.
Unidentified Woman: Resolution recommending that the House of Representatives find Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with subpoenas duly issued by the Committee on the Judiciary.
SIEGEL: Republicans called it a partisan waste of time. Democrats called it a necessary defense of congressional power. And after hours of debate, the House Judiciary Committee approved the contempt citations, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Members of the House Judiciary Committee were almost like parents arguing over how to handle a disobedient kid - the kid in this case being the White House. Republicans said if you try to punish the child and fail, he'll just become more unruly. Democrats said if you don't try to punish him at all, that sends a message that the kid can do whatever he wants.
Republican James Sensenbrenner argued that if Congress challenges the president in court, the president will likely win.
JAMES SENSENBRENNER: And that is going to be viewed as a blank check by the present president and the future president to do whatever they want to to effectively stiff the Congress in discharging their oversight responsibilities.
SHAPIRO: But Democratic Congresswoman Linda Sanchez said this is the moment for Congress to stand up and say no.
LINDA SANCHEZ: If we allow the White House's mere utterance of executive privilege to thwart our efforts to conduct legitimate oversight and gather critical information needed to consider changes in federal law, then we will have set a shameful president for many Congresses to come.
SHAPIRO: Although lawmakers spent the day arguing about the president and the White House, the contempt charges are actually aimed at two individuals - former White House counsel Harriett Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. Congress ordered both of them to provide information on the dismissal of U.S. attorneys. The White House invoked executive privilege and told the witnesses not to cooperate.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said that is unacceptable behavior.
ADAM SCHIFF: The audacity of that takes your breath away. On the question of whether administration or former administration official can simply blow off a subpoena and not show up, there is no legal support for that whatsoever. That is beyond the pale.
SHAPIRO: The committee approved the contempt charges on a party line vote of 22 to 17. White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
TONY SNOW: In our view, this is pathetic. There is an attempt to do something that's never been done in American history, which is to assail the concept of executive privilege, which hails back to the administration of George Washington. And in particular, to use criminal contempt charges against the White House chief of staff and the White House legal counsel.
SHAPIRO: Committee Chairman John Conyers said the White House is the one attempting to do something unprecedented.
JOHN CONYERS: Unlike other disputes involving executive privilege, the president has never personally asserted privilege. The committee has never been given a privilege law and there is no indication the president was ever personally involved in determination decisions.
SHAPIRO: That's the decision to fire U.S. attorneys. Now, the full House will vote on the measure. It's likely to pass, since Democrats are in the majority, but that doesn't mean it will definitely end up in court.
Congresswoman Sanchez explained at today's hearing.
SANCHEZ: I was troubled to read a letter received late last night from the Office of Legislative Affairs, indicating that the administration will direct the D.C. U.S. attorney not to prosecute contempt cases if the full House were to pass resolutions before us today.
SHAPIRO: And if this controversy has at time seemed like a serial novel published one installation at a time, then this is the cliffhanger at the end of today's chapter - the House committee has approved contempt citations, the administration will order prosecutors not to enforce them, and that the final chapter comes steadily closer.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.