A congressional subcommittee on Wednesday put itself on a collision course with the White House over the firing of U.S. attorneys, while Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales -- under siege for his handling of the dismissals -- took steps to repair his image.
Over Republican objections, the House judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law authorized subpoenas for documents and testimony from top Justice Department and White House aides, including political strategist Karl Rove. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take similar action today.
The disclosures about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year have turned into a political embarrassment for the administration and triggered allegations by Democrats that the White House and Justice Department conspired to replace the prosecutors for political reasons. The Justice Department denies that, saying the dismissals were based on performance issues.
The House subcommittee move Wednesday amounted to an act of defiance, coming a day after President Bush accused Democrats of plotting to use subpoenas in order to engage in a “partisan fishing expedition.”
The White House has offered to allow congressional investigators to talk to Rove and other officials in informal private interviews, where they would not be under oath.
“The White House’s offer provides nothing more than conversations. It does not allow this committee to get the information we need without transcripts or oaths,” Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday.
The vote authorized Conyers to issue the subpoenas at his discretion. The chairman said the action gave the committee the ability to continue “good faith negotiations” with the White House regarding the terms of the questioning while “maintaining the option to move forward with our investigation with or without continued cooperation from the administration.”
White House officials warned Wednesday that if congressional committees actually issue subpoenas, their offer to permit private interviews will be withdrawn. “The moment subpoenas are issued, it means that they have rejected the offer,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Snow was careful, however, not to react to the House subcommittee’s vote to authorize the subpoenas. “There is an important distinction between authorizing subpoenas and issuing them,” Snow said. “And we hope members of Congress, as they have an opportunity to think this through, are going to realize that they’ve got a deal before them that enables them to find out what the truth is.
“The real question is ... do you want to get at the truth, or do you want to create a political spectacle?” Snow said during his daily media briefing. “Those are the options that are laid out.”
The confrontation has escalated far faster than such political battles usually do in Washington, and Snow indicated that the White House might want to buy a little time at this point.
“Are we going to change our conditions? No,” Snow said. “But we also think that it probably is worth giving members of Congress a little bit of time to think this through.”
A day after Bush gave his attorney general a vote of confidence, Gonzales appeared to be launching a campaign to save his job by repairing relations with prosecutors in the field and reaching out to political supporters.
His office released a dozen testimonials from Latinos and law enforcement groups, with many saying that Gonzales, the first Latino attorney general, was being unfairly held accountable for the fiasco.
“We have an attorney general who didn’t do anything wrong, but rather is being pilloried because of misstatements by subordinates,” said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest rank-and-file police organization in the country.
Gonzales also made an unannounced appearance Wednesday at a meeting of Latino leaders in Washington, where aides say he got a standing ovation.
Justice Department officials said that Gonzales was planning a series of meetings with regional groups of U.S. attorneys, starting today in St. Louis. The department also said officials were planning to be in contact with individual U.S. attorney offices around the country to “raise issues of mutual concern and discuss accomplishments.”
In e-mails that have been made public in the last week, department officials were found to have mocked and disparaged some of the U.S. attorneys, which has strained relations between Washington and the field.