A House panel cleared the way yesterday for contempt proceedings against former White House counsel Harriet Miers after she obeyed President Bush and skipped a hearing on the firings of federal prosecutors.
Addressing the empty chair where Miss Miers was to testify, Rep. Linda T. Sanchez ruled out of order Mr. Bush's executive privilege claim that his former advisers are immune from being subpoenaed by Congress.
The House Judiciary subcommittee that Miss Sanchez chairs voted 7-5 to sustain her ruling. If an agreement with the White House is not reached, the full Judiciary Committee could convene hearings and vote on whether to hold Miss Miers, Mr. Bush's longtime friend and former Supreme Court nominee, in contempt. Ultimately, the full House would have to vote on any contempt citation.
"[Mr. Bush's] claims are not legally valid," Miss Sanchez, California Democrat, said. "Ms. Miers is required pursuant to the subpoena to be here now."
The White House showed no signs of backing down, pointing out that Mr. Bush was willing to make Miss Miers and other administration officials available for interviews, but only behind closed doors and without a transcript. Democrats have rejected the offer.
"If the House Judiciary Committee wants to avoid confrontation, it should withdraw its subpoenas," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "The committee is rejecting accommodation because they prefer just the kind of political spectacle they're engaged in now."
The question grew more pressing when Mr. Bush ordered Miss Miers to defy the committee's subpoena, unlike a lower-ranking former White House aide, Sara Taylor, who took a different approach Wednesday.
Acting under her own subpoena, Miss Taylor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in an attempt to satisfy both Congress and the White House and thereby avoid a contempt citation. It's not clear whether she was successful. She answered some questions while saying she could not answer others under Mr. Bush's directive. The Senate committee's ranking Republican told Miss Taylor that she might have been on safer legal ground had she said nothing.
Saying nothing is the strategy that Miss Miers, on Mr. Bush's orders, adopted yesterday.
Like Miss Taylor, Miss Miers participated in the process of deciding which prosecutors to fire, according to e-mails released by the Justice Department. At one point, the documents showed, Miss Miers proposed firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, but Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales rejected that suggestion.
Democrats want to ask her under oath about the White House's role in drawing up the firing list. But Mr. Bush invoked executive privilege, saying he needed to protect the flow of advice he receives from close advisers. Additionally, he declared Miss. Miers immune from subpoenas and ordered her to skip yesterday's hearing.
Democrats were furious, declaring the White House had reached "novel legal conclusions" to justify withholding a former aide's testimony, based on legal opinions regarding currently serving White House officials, not court rulings.