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Contempt Votes to Wait Until Fall

The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to charge White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers with contempt of Congress amid contentious partisan debate, but the resolution appears unlikely to advance to the chamber’s floor before the August recess, according to Democratic aides.

“We’re not going to bump it up to the front of the queue in a busy week,” said a House leadership aide who asked not to be identified. Another Democratic aide, who also requested anonymity, echoed that sentiment.

While the wait would delay a potential showdown with the White House until the fall, Democratic sources cited the busy House schedule, including the fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill.

The House leadership aide confirmed the bill would not be sidelined permanently, however, moving to the floor as early as September when Congress reconvenes following the month-long recess.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not mention a full House vote on the issue, instead expressing a desire that the Judiciary Committee’s action would prompt the White House to act.

“The Constitution gives the Congress a crucial role in overseeing the executive branch in order to protect the American people against overreaching, incompetence, and corruption,” Pelosi said. “I am hopeful that today’s vote will help the administration see the light and release the information to which the Judiciary Committee is entitled.”

In a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) similarly urged the Bush administration to reconsider its negotiation offers.

“But make no mistake: If the White House continues to refuse to engage in any discussions beyond repeating its unacceptable ‘take it or leave it’ offer, and if Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers continue to refuse to comply altogether with our subpoenas, we will have no choice but to enforce those subpoenas by all appropriate legal means. In our system of government, no one is above the law,” Conyers wrote.

Both Bolten and Miers have refused to respond to committee subpoenas for testimony and documents in the investigation of the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year, acting at the direction of the White House, which has asserted that they are protected from Congressional subpoena power by executive privilege.

White House spokesman Tony Snow decried the committee’s vote to pursue contempt charges Wednesday as “pathetic.”

“What you have right now is partisanship on Capitol Hill that quite often boils down to insults, insinuations, inquisitions and investigations rather than pursuing the normal business of trying to pass major pieces of legislation, such as appropriations bills, and to try to work in such a way as to demonstrate to the American people that Congress and the White House can work together,” Snow said, and later added: “We think a confrontation of this sort is neither constructive, nor necessary.”

The Justice Department recently has cited legal opinions that suggest it would be “inappropriate” to prosecute those contempt citations, and the department reiterated in a letter to Conyers on Tuesday that it would not prosecute them.

Following a divisive two-hour debate, the Judiciary panel approved the resolution, 22-17, in a party-line vote, with Democrats also uniting to defeat two GOP-sponsored amendments.

“It’s not a step that I as chairman take easily or lightly, but it is one I believe is necessary, not only to allow us to gain an accurate picture of the facts surrounding U.S. attorneys controversy, but to protect our constitutional prerogatives as a coequal branch of government,” Conyers said.

Republicans objected to the action, characterizing the contempt charges as politically motivated.

“The majority knows that it would leap to the barricades of executive privilege if a Democrat were in the White House,” said Republican Lamar Smith (Texas), the panel’s ranking member.

Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) asserted: “What we have here, I believe, is a partisan fishing expedition.”

Conyers denied those accusations, stating that the contempt charges are necessary for the committee to complete its investigation: “Unfortunately, we can’t get to the evidence before we get to the witnesses and the documents requested,”

Members also sparred repeatedly over whether pursuing the contempt charges ultimately will alter the balance of power in future disputes with the executive branch, with Democrats asserting the action is necessary to reinforce Congressional stature.

“If we fail in this challenge for contempt we could make this a more imperial president,” Conyers said.

But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the panel’s former chairman, called the effort “a needless escalation of this entire issue.”

“I think the White House is going to win the argument in court,” he added.

Instead, Sensenbrenner proposed that the House Office of General Counsel file a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to challenge only the president’s claim of executive privilege, to which Conyers said: “We will think very carefully about this suggestion.”

Across the Capitol, on the heels of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ appearance Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said Gonzales should release the details of his March 10, 2004, meeting with the “Gang of Eight” — the bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders on intelligence matters.

Gonzales claimed during his testimony that he went to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room that night to share the Gang of Eight’s concerns that a secret intelligence program should not be allowed to expire. Members of the group have disputed that summary of the lawmakers’ comments, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) both said they did not believe Gonzales was accurately reflecting the Gang of Eight meetings.

Cardin told Roll Call that Gonzales “is very selective on what information he makes available,” leaving the committee no way to judge the veracity of his explanation. Cardin said Gonzales should release the details of the Gang of Eight meeting. “Give us the material that was there, and then we can see” whether it supports Gonzales’ interpretation of events, Cardin said. Since the subject of the meetings are classified, Cardin suggested the attorney general could provide the information to Congress in a classified format.

The White House defended Gonzales again on Wednesday. “We continue to believe that the attorney general has testified truthfully. He has also testified behind closed doors in considerably greater detail,” Snow said.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.

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