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Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee this week took one step forward — but two steps back — in their effort to wrest information from the White House about U.S. attorney firings. We’d urge that Democrats step away from the threat of holding White House officials in contempt and keep negotiating — or else, file a civil suit.

The step forward was a reasonable counteroffer to free up documents and testimony from White House officials. Unfortunately, it was presented as a “final” offer, with a deadline of Friday, along with a voluminous report designed to trigger a House vote to hold White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress.

The White House rejected the offer out of hand and basically dared the House to vote contempt, dismissing the entire inquiry into the attorney firings as “a waste of time.” Moreover, incoming Attorney General Michael Mukasey has forecast that, if the House votes contempt, the Justice Department will not take the case to a grand jury.

On the merits, we have our doubts that the attorney-firing “scandal” is proving worth the effort that has gone into investigating it. Dozens of Justice Department witnesses have testified and thousands of documents have been reviewed, but as yet there is no evidence that the administration fired the attorneys either to protect Republicans from prosecution or to punish Democrats.

Even though the top targets of Democratic inquiries — President Bush’s former top White House political aide, Karl Rove, and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — are no longer in the administration, Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) seems bent on pushing ahead in hopes that some damning piece of evidence will turn up.

The White House has offered to make witnesses available for “interviews,” but not under oath and with no official transcript. Conyers’ “final” offer allows not-under-oath testimony, but insists on a transcript, which the White House says still lends “the trappings of a hearing.”

Meantime, Conyers has accepted the White House offer to make available records of communications between White House aides and non-White House persons. But he also wants staffers to have access to internal White House documents, over which the White House is claiming executive privilege.

There are four possible avenues ahead here — continued negotiations, a House contempt vote, a House leadership decision to drop the whole matter and the filing of a civil suit. If House leaders really believe there is a chance to unearth evidence of real wrongdoing, we consider the fourth option as the best available.

It’s clear that a House vote to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt will lead nowhere. Further negotiations may lead nowhere, too, but they are worth a try.

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