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Subpoena Debate Gets Hotter

Congressional Democrats were exploring possible avenues of compromise with the White House on Wednesday after the House Judiciary Committee authorized subpoenas of top Bush administration aides and the Senate Judiciary panel prepared to do the same today. Meanwhile, key Senate Judiciary Republicans met with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department and later said they would oppose Democratic efforts to subpoena the White House aides in the investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

GOP Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) sat down with Gonzales and all later said they would vote today against authorizing the Judiciary Committee to issue subpoenas for the testimony of White House aide Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers. Ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did not attend the meeting but indicated in a statement he would also vote against the subpoenas.

The House Judiciary Committee formally authorized the issuance of subpoenas to Rove, Miers and two of their deputies on Wednesday. But the Democrats’ moves still leave room for the parties to negotiate a way out of an increasingly explosive situation.

Nonetheless, the White House and Senate Democrats continued to turn up the volume on the rhetoric Wednesday, while behind the scenes Democratic aides said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was trying to produce a counteroffer to the one advanced by White House counsel Fred Fielding.

But White House spokesman Tony Snow angered Democrats on Wednesday by saying that if subpoenas are issued, the offer for Rove and Miers and two of their deputies to be interviewed in a private session, not under oath and without transcripts, would be withdrawn. President Bush threatened in a speech Tuesday night to take the matter to court if Democrats pressed forward with the subpoena plan.

“They’ve withdrawn their offer,” Leahy said flatly in response to Snow’s comments.

“I would hope the White House would reconsider its offer and be willing to negotiate,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the probe into the firings.

Following their meeting with the embattled attorney general, Kyl said Gonzales appeared “on top of the whole matter” and that the parties discussed how the president’s offer would be received by the Judiciary Committee.

“He really regrets the way some of this information has come out,” Kyl said of Gonzales. “In none of the cases of U.S. attorneys being asked to resign was it because of any ongoing investigation.

“The best way for us to get the most information the quickest is to take the president up on his offer,” Kyl added. “If we go the subpoena [route], we’re likely not to get the information. At least not quickly.”

“My thought is that the Congress ought to take advantage of what the president has offered,” added Sessions. “I don’t think we ought to be issuing subpoenas right now.

Specter urged Democrats in a speech at a separate hearing Wednesday to “rethink” the issuing of subpoenas. He warned that a court battle would result in “very, very long delays” that might not be resolved until 2009 — and even then, perhaps not in Congress’ favor.

“I am going to await judgment on my own vote in committee,” Specter said. But, he added, “I would not like to see a two-year delay or more before we find these facts, because the efficiency and viability of our U.S. attorneys hangs in the balance until we clear this up.”

Democrats have been harshly critical of the White House plan to release further documents in relation to the U.S. attorneys’ firings and to offer interviews with White House aides under certain conditions. In meetings with lawmakers Tuesday, Fielding offered to allow Rove, Miers and their deputies to testify in closed session, without oaths or transcripts.

But Democrats say that is totally unsatisfactory because there would be no way to clarify conflicting testimony.

“Now the issue has been joined,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was the first to call on the administration to explain the firings in January.

“The White House is in a bunker mentality,” Feinstein said. “They won’t listen. They won’t change. I believe there is even more to come out. And I think it is our duty to bring that out.”

Democrats charge that the White House has repeatedly misled them about the reasons for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006. The White House and Justice Department, which carried out the dismissals, have maintained the firings are a presidential prerogative and that they were performance-related.

But e-mails from the Justice Department delivered last week to Congress suggest there was a coordinated campaign between the White House and the Justice Department to weed out those U.S. attorneys who were disloyal to the Bush administration.

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