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Panel Set to Vote on Contempt

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will take up a motion to hold senior Bush administration officials in contempt of Congress, with an eye toward full Senate passage later this month.

The contempt motion, which seeks testimony from ex-White House political guru Karl Rove, among others, is the first item of business on the Judiciary Committee’s Thursday meeting agenda.

But aides said the motion could be held over for a week if there is an objection by any of the committee’s Democrats or Republicans.

“The chairman takes this very seriously,” committee spokeswoman Erica Chabot said, explaining that the contempt measure could “quite possibly” be held over until the following Thursday.

“It’s time to get the ball rolling on this,” Chabot said.

Senators, however, could want to delay the contempt vote in order to consider another fight with the White House. The second item on the agenda is legislation by Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to forge a compromise aimed at limiting the administration’s warrantless wiretapping power.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Nov. 29, Specter said Congress cannot “cry wolf” after issuing subpoenas. “I think the committee has no other alternative but to proceed,” Specter said.

But Specter added that a political deal was the most likely avenue to success as the last contempt citation took two years to resolve in court.

But freshman Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former state attorney general, says it’s time for the issue to be resolved in the courts.

“I’m astounded at the breadth and the scope of the privilege that [administration officials] claim,” Whitehouse told the Web site Talking Points Memo. “I actually hope that it comes to a point where we end up litigating it and getting a court decision and settling this question.”

Consideration of the contempt motion comes after Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ruled last week that the administration’s claims of executive privilege in the case were “overbroad, unsubstantiated and not legally valid.”

The measure likely would force a legal standoff over Congress’ right to testimony and documents surrounding the ouster of nine U.S. attorneys from Rove, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, former Political Director Sara Taylor and Deputy Political Director Scott Jennings.

Since March, White House counsel Fred Fielding has claimed that the aides are covered by executive privilege and will not testify before Congress, except without an oath or transcript.

Senate Judiciary Committee approval would put the chamber on the same path as the House, which may consider a contempt citation in the attorneys’ probe before Congress recesses for the year.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), passed its own contempt citation on July 25 for documents and testimony from Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

In his Nov. 29 ruling, Leahy called for Bolten, Rove, Taylor and Jennings to “immediately comply” with the Senate’s subpoenas for their testimony.

Over the summer, Taylor and Jennings testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Leahy said they did not answer many relevant questions.

Leahy found it “surprising” that the White House has asserted executive privilege over the aides’ testimony because there is “significant and uncontroverted evidence” that the president wasn’t involved in the prosecutor purge.

He argued that if the administration had support for its privilege argument it would have submitted a privilege log or provided a “specific factual basis” for the contention.

It’s unclear who would win if the issue ends up in the courts. Once a contempt motion is passed, Democrats believe that the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia would be charged with impaneling a grand jury to enforce it.

But in the 1982 case of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, the attorney general refused to enforce Congress’ contempt motion. The matter was ultimately resolved politically.

New Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said he does not want to be in the position of refereeing the contempt fight.