Congress called a timeout Thursday in its confrontation with the Bush administration after a Senate committee voted to authorize subpoenas to compel White House officials -- including political advisor Karl Rove -- to testify about why eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year.
Democrats said the voice vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, following a similar move by a House subcommittee Thursday, would strengthen their hand as they sought more information from the White House about the dismissals, which critics say were politically motivated.
But at the same time, members of Congress said they would not issue any subpoenas for at least a week, a move that allows time for negotiations in what had become a rapidly escalating constitutional showdown.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he would wait until Thursday at the earliest to make a decision on subpoenas.
“Let’s not rush into this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, noting that the chamber would adjourn next week for spring recess. “When we get back from our break, a decision will have to be made” on whether to issue subpoenas to Rove and others.
The decision to move more slowly will permit the two sides to begin conversations in private that could lead to a deal.
Indeed, talks began Thursday afternoon when the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, spoke to White House Counsel Fred Fielding over the phone.
Specter said he proposed that interviews with Rove and others take place in public and be transcribed, but that they would not need to be under oath and the number of questioners could be limited.
Fielding “said that he had no authorization to negotiate, but that he would take my suggestion to the president,” Specter said.
Fielding on Tuesday said that Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and others would agree to be interviewed in private by a limited number of lawmakers, but not under oath and with no transcript or recording of the interviews.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday that “Fred Fielding listened with an open ear,” but she gave no response to Specter’s proposal.
Leahy expressed exasperation with the White House, saying that the Fielding offer amounted to “nothing, nothing, nothing.” But he added that he would not issue subpoenas until after Thursday, when he has invited D. Kyle Sampson, a former Justice Department official accused of leading the charge against some of the attorneys, to testify before the committee.
“I assume he’ll accept our invitation,” Leahy said. “It’s an invitation at this point, not a subpoena.”
For its part, the White House sent mixed signals Thursday. Spokesman Tony Snow did not back down from comments earlier in the week saying that White House officials would not negotiate, but he also said “the phone lines are still open.”
“I think one of the things you need to look for in the next couple of days ... is let people think this through. This is not something that’s going to be decided overnight,” Snow said.
The cooling of rhetoric on both sides seemed to reflect a political calculation that each could be damaged if the confrontation were to proceed further and land in court. Courts have rarely intervened in such disputes between the legislative and executive branches of governments, and Democrats acknowledge that a legal battle could outlast the 22 months left in President Bush’s term.
Democrats also are concerned that the dispute could backfire -- and that it is drowning out other issues that work to their advantage, such as ending the Iraq war.
The White House also may recognize that its hand is not as strong as it would like. Recent court cases have not fully endorsed the administration’s expansive view of presidential power, and Bush has been politically weakened by Republican losses in November’s election and the public restlessness over the war.
Moreover, the White House in general and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales in particular appeared to be losing support from some Republicans on Capitol Hill.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the administration’s allies were unusually taciturn and eschewed taking a roll call vote that would have put them on the record as supporting the administration.
One of them, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, actually voted with the Democrats in favor of subpoena power and made a point of noting his vote in the record.
“I voted aye because I believe the sooner we get all these facts out, the better off we are,” Grassley said, explaining that he thought the administration had been blocking legitimate information requests from both Republicans and Democrats.
Meanwhile, at a meeting about child abuse with prosecutors in St. Louis, Mo., Gonzales declared in perhaps his strongest language so far that he intends to keep his job.
“I’m not going to resign. I’m going to stay focused on protecting our kids,” Gonzales told reporters.
He defended his two-year tenure. “If you look at the record ... it has been tremendous in the area of public corruption, in the area of going after child pornography. So the record ... has been extremely strong.
“I am committed to working with Congress to make sure that they have the information that they need to determine what happened here,” he said. “We are working with Congress voluntarily. No United States attorney was fired for improper reasons. That’s the message that I’m going to deliver to the United States Congress.”
Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.