ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Today, Congress and the White House ratcheted up their confrontation over eight dismissed U.S. attorneys. The disagreement is over whether and how White House staff will testify in a congressional inquiry. On the congressional side, a House committee voted to authorize subpoenas but did not issue them. On the White House side, Spokesman Tony Snow said that if Congress issues subpoenas, the White House will withdraw its offer for cooperation.
SIEGEL: We're going to have several items on this story. We'll hear directly from the White House about how they would handle a subpoena, and also about the history of White House staff testifying on Capitol Hill. We begin with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who reports on the House committee vote.
ARI SHAPIRO: The outcome of the motion to grant subpoena authority was never in doubt. That's a simple numbers game.
Unidentified Woman: The ayes have it and the motion is agreed to.
SHAPIRO: There was some question about how heated the debate would be. Until now, Republicans in Congress have been muted at best when they defend the Justice Department and the White House and the controversy over the U.S. attorney dismissals. But today, as Republican Chris Cannon of Utah noted, all the Republicans met just before the meeting and got on the same page.
Representative CHRIS CANNON (Republican, Utah): The only purpose of subpoenas issued to the White House now is to fan the flames and photo ops of partisan controversy for partisan gain, tactics that impede the discovery of truth and hamper the public's ability to obtain the truth.
SHAPIRO: No subpoenas have been issued. This is only the authorization to subpoena top White House officials. Democrat John Conyers of Michigan said he hopes he doesn't have to use subpoenas, but so far he's been dissatisfied with the White House's offers of cooperation. They missed a deadline last week and their offer for interviews does not allow the committee to swear people in or transcribe their statements.
Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): We could meet at the local pub to have that kind of gathering. I love conversations especially with veteran lawyers and people associated with the White House. But in my judgment, it would not advance us to what uncovering the simple truth in this matter.
SHAPIRO: A Senate committee is scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to grant the same authorization to subpoena White House aides. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican, said he would prefer voluntary testimony to subpoenas and he thinks transcriptions are a good idea. In a heated White House briefing, Spokesman Tony Snow lay down the line: no transcripts, no oath.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): It's an interview. It's an interview. It's - these are interviews. What you're trying to do is to create a courtroom atmosphere, and that's exactly what we're (unintelligible)…
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) investigation, talk to them, but…
Mr. SNOW: Okay, but…
Unidentified Man: …the bottom line is they want to hear from Karl Rove and other staffers, okay?
Mr. SNOW: And they will.
Unidentified Man: And they don't want any transcripts.
Mr. SNOW: (unintelligible) Well, again, the question is do they want the truth and do they think they're not going to be able to get it. And the answer is, of course they're going to get the truth and get the whole truth…
SHAPIRO: Georgetown Law Professor Peter Rubin says the White House's argument boils down to a phrase that the president's men would rather not use in this debate, just two words: executive privilege.
Professor PETER RUBIN (Law, Georgetown University): They have an Nixonian ring to them. But that's what the White House is claiming here, that these officials testimony can't be compelled because it's privileged, because it involves conversations that took place within the executive branch.
SHAPIRO: Rubin says if subpoena authority faces off against executive privilege, there are two possible outcomes: either Congress and the White House will reach a compromise or it'll end up in court. He says today's House vote makes it more likely that a courthouse will be the ultimate destination.
Prof. RUBIN: Unlike the Senate, which has a filibuster rule which the Republican minority could use, it's much more likely that if the White House doesn't comply with House subpoenas, the House by a simple majority will vote to hold the White House officials in contempt and will then seek to enforce the subpoenas in court.
SHAPIRO: Of course, court rulings can take a long time and their verdicts can be appealed. If the White House wants this story to go away, it could be in their interests to compromise. And since a court battle could last past the end of the Bush administration, it could be in Congress' interest to compromise too.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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