Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The White House today said their offer to allow Congress to interview top administration officials will be voided if Democrats issue subpoenas.

“If they issue subpoenas, the offer is withdrawn,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Democrats can either accept the White House offer to talk in private, without a transcript and not under oath, with Karl Rove and other top administration officials, or issue subpoenas, which President Bush has said he will fight in court.

Mr. Snow, when pressed, backed off his statement that the White House would withdraw their offer. He said instead that Congress would have “knocked it off the table.”

“They will have rejected the offer,” Mr. Snow said at the midday news briefing.

A House Judiciary subcommittee this morning authorized the issuance of subpoenas for Mr. Rove, a top political adviser, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, giving congressional Democrats more leverage in their showdown with Mr. Bush.

“The White House’s offer provides nothing more than conversations. It does not allow this committee to get the information we need without transcripts or oaths,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“We are continuing our talks with the White House, along with the Senate, but we must protect the interest of the Congress and the American people by maintaining the option to move forward with our investigation with or without continued cooperation from the administration,” Mr. Conyers said.

Congress wants to delve into whether the White House fired eight federal prosecutors last year for improper reasons. Mr. Conyers may now issue the subpoenas at any time.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled tomorrow to vote to authorize their own subpoenas on Mr. Rove and Miss Miers.

Mr. Bush said yesterday that he would “not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants.”

Mr. Bush promised to take the fight over subpoenas to court.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said this morning that Mr. Bush has set conditions on the interviews with administration officials because “what we want to avoid is the trappings of a media spectacle.”

Mr. Snow said there is no need for a transcript because Congress is on a “fact-finding mission,” and will be having a “conversation” with the officials, instead of holding a hearing or trial.

The president said he still has confidence in Mr. Gonzales, a longtime ally, whose chief of staff resigned last week over the imbroglio.

“I support the attorney general,” Mr. Bush said.

Democratic leaders — confounded and angered after an afternoon meeting with White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding — responded to the president’s warning with defiant vows to press ahead with subpoenas.

“The [Senate] Judiciary Committee … will follow this investigation where it leads. We have an obligation — far above party, far above partisanship — to our country and its system of justice,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on Senate floor. “We will not be deterred. … The truth will come out.”

Once subpoenas are authorized, committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, can issue them at any time, in consultation with the ranking Republican member of the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Fielding offered Democrats a chance to interview Mr. Rove and Miss Miers — but in private, without a transcript and not under oath.

Mr. Specter said last night that he might be content with the president’s proposal.

“I would prefer to have the interviews in public, but it is more important to get the information promptly than to have months or years of litigation,” Mr. Specter said. “If we are dissatisfied with the information provided in the manner offered by the president, we can always issue subpoenas.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Mr. Rove should testify under oath.

“If Karl Rove plans to tell the truth, he has nothing to fear from being under oath like any other witness,” said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Mr. Bush said he wants to preserve his staff’s ability to give “candid advice.”

“If the staff of a president operated in constant fear of being called before various committees, to discuss internal deliberations, the president would not receive candid advice, and the American people would be ill-served,” he said.

The Senate also yesterday voted 94-2 to strip the attorney general of a recently created power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys, saying Mr. Gonzales had abused the statute, which was part of the 2006 USA Patriot Act renewal.

Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri opposed the measure.

Democrats, and some Republicans, want to find out whether the White House dismissed the federal prosecutors to derail corruption probes into Republican lawmakers.

Mr. Bush said that there was “no indication that anybody did anything improper” and that Democrats needed to read the roughly 3,000 pages of e-mails, memos and other documents released by the Justice Department on Monday night and yesterday.

The Washington Times reviewed the 939 pages of documents released Monday night. The documents gave an overall negative view — one not previously disclosed in public — of seven of the eight dismissed prosecutors.

Scathing criticisms of each of the dismissed prosecutors, save one, were included in the communications. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the documents showed that the attorneys were fired for performance-based reasons, not for “partisan recrimination.”

Support for Mr. Gonzales among Capitol Hill Republicans is mixed. Several Republicans, including Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican and longtime critic of the Justice Department, said yesterday that there is no reason why Mr. Gonzales should resign.

“This is a big hoopla,” Mr. Lott said. “He didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t do anything improper.”

However, Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, joined the handful of Republicans who have called on Mr. Gonzales to resign.

Christina Bellantoni and S.A. Miller contributed to this article.

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