House Cites 2 Bush Aides for Contempt
WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to issue contempt citations against the White House chief of staff and a former White House counsel for refusing to cooperate in an investigation into the mass firings of federal prosecutors.
The vote to hold Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, the former counsel, in contempt of Congress followed bitter partisan wrangling on the House floor, including a Republican walkout from the chamber, and moved House Democrats closer to a constitutional showdown with President Bush.
The 223-to-32 vote to issue the contempt citations, the first approved by Congress against the executive branch since the Reagan administration, is likely to move the dispute to a federal courtroom, with House lawyers calling on a judge to enforce subpoenas against Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers. The Senate is weighing similar contempt charges against Karl Rove, President Bush’s former political adviser.
Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers were subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee for information about their part in the dismissal of several United States attorneys last year for what appear to have been political reasons. The uproar over the firings led to bipartisan calls in Congress for the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who abruptly stepped down last summer.
As House Republicans protested the vote with an angry walkout from the House floor, the White House joined in expressions of outrage over the contempt citations.
Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said the White House had tried to compromise with House Democrats to help lawmakers obtain information from Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers short of public testimony. “Many of the things that they asked for, we were willing to give,” she said. “But instead, they’re going to waste time on this partisan, futile act.”
Normally, a Congressional subpoena would be enforced by the Justice Department. But the White House and Mr. Gonzales’s successor, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, have already said that they will not pursue contempt charges against current and former White House officials who, they believe, are shielded from testimony by executive privilege.
That appeared to leave only two options for the House — seek the help of the federal judiciary to try to enforce the contempt citations or, less likely, hold its own trial on Capitol Hill for Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers, similar to an impeachment trial. The House measure passed on Thursday gave explicit authority to House lawyers to “initiate or intervene in judicial proceedings” in federal court to enforce the subpoenas.
In a statement responding to the House vote, the Justice Department suggested that Mr. Mukasey had not made a final decision to rebuff the House request, but noted that “he did not expect that he would act in contravention of longstanding department precedent” against enforcing subpoenas against executive branch officials.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, said Thursday on the House floor that he had no choice but to pursue the contempt citations.
“The resolutions we are considering today are not steps that I as chairman take easily or lightly, but they are necessary to protect our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government,” he said.
House Republican leaders described the contempt vote as a political ploy that drew time away from what they described as a much more important debate in Congress this week over extending a federal law to allow eavesdropping on domestic telephone calls and e-mails in pursuit of terrorists.
“We have space on the calendar today for a politically charged fishing expedition but not space for a bill that would protect the American people from terrorists who want to kill us,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican House leader.
He then instructed other Republicans to exit the chamber in protest. “Let’s just get up and leave,” Mr. Boehner said before storming off the House floor along with scores of his party’s members.
The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on the floor on the contempt citation that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last December against Mr. Bolten and Mr. Rove, also over demands for information about the firing of the United States attorneys.