MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Today, the White House refused to provide Congress with subpoenaed documents and testimony about the firing of U.S. attorneys. On behalf of the president, White House counsel, Fred Fielding, invoked executive privilege contending that the congressional demands for information were unreasonable. He said they represent a substantial intrusion into presidential prerogatives.
NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Fielding's letter virtually dared Congress to go to court. And at the White House briefing, spokesman Tony Snow contended that the administration has already provided Congress all the information that it could possibly need about the U.S. attorney firing scandal.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): More than eighty-five hundred pages of documents, we've pointed out, have been produced and we have also offered for extensive interviews of the key players people want to hear from. So the question is, do you want the information?
TOTENBERG: The sticking points between the White House and Congress are these: the White House wants its officials to testify off the record, behind closed doors, without any transcript, and without taking an oath to tell the truth.
Additionally, the White House has refused to itemize each document it's withholding and to describe why. The White House claims that would be tantamount to giving Congress the very information it wants.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, who's been willing to agree to some but not all of the White House demands, got so frustrated over the weekend that on CNN's "Late Edition," he said he would be willing to agree to all the White House demands as a first step, and that the committee could later follow up with subpoenas for transcribed and sworn testimony.
But committee chairman Patrick Leahy reminded Specter about the all-encompassing nature of the White House terms.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): Unfortunately, they said there's no way we have to agree to do no follow-ups so they can just - two minutes into thing, get up and walk out. And we…
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I agree with you that we cannot give away our authority for follow up.
Sen. LEAHY: I think - you know, the problem we have, Arlen, I've asked the White House several times if they have any - wanted to give any given in this at all, they say, absolutely not. This is a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And…
Sen. SPECTER: Patrick…
Sen. LEAHY: Yes, sir?
Sen. SPECTER: One thing we haven't done is asked for a meeting with the president.
TOTENBERG: For now, Specter said he backs Leahy's plan to go ahead this week with the questioning of Sara Taylor, the former White House political director, and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel.
In a letter to the committee, Taylor's lawyer said his client wants to testify and has participated in no wrongdoing. But he said that if the White House instructs Taylor not to talk - and it now has - she would have to defer to the president's directive unless a court rules otherwise.
Senator Leahy, speaking from a payphone in Vermont, said that Taylor can answer plenty of questions about the U.S. attorney scandal, questions that are unrelated to President Bush.
Sen. LEAHY: This woman had about 60,000 e-mails on a Republican National Committee e-mail account. I don't see how you get executive privilege out of that.
TOTENBERG: Leahy knows that the White House initially contended it could not provide the e-mails sent from the White House to the Republican National Committee because they've been deleted and lost forever in computer space. Later, however, the e-mails were retrieved but the White House still has refused to provide them.
If the standoff between the White House and Congress cannot be resolved, it will, in all likelihood, eventually go to court. While Republicans could filibuster a contempt citation in the Senate, that would not be true in the House.
In a memorandum prepared for the White House and submitted to Congress, Solicitor General Paul Clement contends that because the documents and testimony in this matter involved a core presidential power - namely appointment and removal of executive officers - Congress can only obtain White House information if it can demonstrate that the information is critical to the fulfillment of congressional duties. That's a high threshold set by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1974.
Since then, however, the court has ruled that Congress need only show the information is relevant to its inquiry and cannot be obtained elsewhere. Most recently in a civil case, the appeals court ruled against the Bush administration and required it provide information about pardon request from an earlier administration. In short, Congress does have a real shot at winning a court case, but the likelihood is that the Bush administration would be long gone by then.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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