Bush faces contempt threat

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Democratic leaders yesterday challenged President Bush’s refusal to respond to congressional subpoenas and said they will take steps toward holding the White House in contempt of Congress.

“We will take the necessary steps to rule on your [executive] privilege claims and appropriately enforce our subpoenas backed by the full force of law,” the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees wrote to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan called Mr. Bush’s assertion of executive privilege “sweeping and overly broad.”

Mr. Bush on Thursday said he will not turn over documents related to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, citing the need for candid advice from executive branch officials and for candid internal deliberations.

In their letter, Mr. Leahy and Mr. Conyers ordered the White House to provide “specific factual and legal bases for your claims regarding each document withheld” by July 9.

At that point, the letter stated, the chairmen will begin a multistep process that could result in a contempt vote before either the House or Senate.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said administration officials were “reviewing the letter, but there’s not much in it that’s promising.”

“Overlooking their penchant for name-calling, the chairmen’s letter continues to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of separation of powers. The Justice Department has shown extraordinary accommodation to the committees — amounting to mountains of documents [and] countless hours of hearings and interviews,” Mr. Fratto said.

The president has not yet responded to subpoenas for testimony from two former White House officials — former Counsel Harriet Miers and former political affairs chief Sara Taylor — or to a subpoena for documents related to the government’s domestic surveillance program.

Mr. Fielding said Thursday that Mr. Bush is also prepared to assert executive privilege in response to these subpoenas.

“If the committees just want the facts, then they should withdraw the subpoenas and accept the president’s offer instead of this continued pattern of gross over-reach and confrontation,” Mr. Fratto said.

A Democratic aide, however, emphasized that the progressive nature of the subpoena enforcement process is designed to produce an agreement before a contempt vote is held.

“With each step the pressure increases on the parties to come to an accommodation,” said the aide, who asked not to be named.

If no agreement is reached, and a contempt vote is approved by either chamber of Congress, the matter would be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution in federal court.

Mr. Leahy and Mr. Conyers argued that Congress has a compelling interest in obtaining documents related to the U.S. attorney firings, which they said were “improper.”

“The executive privilege is not a broad and sweeping authority the president can hide behind because he does not want to cooperate with congressional oversight,” the Democratic chairmen said.

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