A House committee yesterday voted to hold two Bush administration officials in contempt of Congress for not responding to congressional subpoenas, prompting the White House to charge that the Democrat-controlled Congress is wasting time and taxpayer money on partisan "inquisitions."
"This is not a confrontation we have sought, and is one we are still hoping to avoid," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, whose panel voted 22-17, entirely along party lines, to send the contempt citations to the full House for a vote in the next few weeks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, likely will wait until September — after Congress returns from its monthlong recess — to decide whether to introduce the contempt citation for a vote on the House floor.
"It's unlikely that we'll vote on it before the break," said an aide to a House Democratic leader who asked not to be named.
The citations target former White House Counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to testify under subpoena and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten for ignoring subpoenas requiring him to supply documents to Congress.
Democrats say they need Miss Miers' testimony and documents from Mr. Bolten in order to find out whether the White House acted improperly in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
White House spokesman Tony Snow, along with several Republican congressmen, said Mr. Conyers and other Democratic leaders were needlessly escalating a constitutional showdown.
"This is pathetic," Mr. Snow said. "This looks like an attempt to provoke something that falls more into the area of political theater than respectful, good governance and trying to do oversight."
Ranking Republicans on the House committee said there was no evidence of wrongdoing to legally justify the citation.
"There is a lot of myth," said Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican. "There is not a lot of ... evidence that the White House did anything wrong."
Mr. Conyers said in response that Mr. Cannon's "appeal for evidence is before the fact."
"We are trying to get to the evidence," Mr. Conyers said.
President Bush has invoked executive privilege in the face of congressional subpoenas for information about the U.S. attorneys' firings, and he has offered Congress limited access to White House officials and documents. Mr. Bush said he must protect the privacy of the executive branch's internal deliberations.
The White House yesterday stood by its offer to allow private interviews with Miss Miers and other administration officials, and attacked Democrats for wasting time and taxpayer money.
"Here's what we have seen since the beginning of the Congress," Mr. Snow said. "More than 300 executive branch investigations or inquiries; 400 requests for documents, interviews or testimony. We have had more than 550 officials testify. We've had more than 600 oversight hearings, 87,000-plus hours spent responding to oversight requests, and 430,000 pages made available to Congress for oversight.
"We have hundreds of hearings that have produced bupkis," said Mr. Snow, who added that Democrats have engaged in "inquisitions."
Mrs. Pelosi defended the actions of Congress.
"The contempt proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee today are part of a broader effort by House Democrats to restore our nation's fundamental system of checks and balances," she said. "For the last six years, under Republican leadership, Congress failed to conduct its proper oversight role, resulting in fiascos such as the mismanagement of our Iraq policy, widespread corruption by contractors such as Halliburton and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina."
If the House approves the contempt citations, the matter will be sent to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey A. Taylor, but the Justice Department has said the U.S. attorney is not required to pursue it. Contempt of Congress citations do not "apply to the President or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege," Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, said in a letter sent Tuesday to Mr. Conyers.