WASHINGTON -- House Democrats yesterday targeted two of President Bush's longtime aides for criminal contempt citations, escalating a legal fight over executive privilege and access to White House deliberations on the firings of federal prosecutors.
Representative John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would vote tomorrow on citing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel, for contempt of Congress.
"It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter," Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, said in a statement after being told again by their attorneys that Bolten and Miers would not comply with the committee's subpoenas.
The administration showed no signs of budging from its position that the president's current and former advisers are immune from congressional subpoenas and that any White House documents related to the dismissals are protected by executive privilege.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said any House-passed contempt citation against the aides was unlikely to advance to criminal prosecutions. "The Justice Department has, in fact, been reluctant to do such things," he said.
There were indications, however, that the administration was seeking to repair some political damage that Democrats have inflicted during their nearly seven-month investigation into the firings of eight US attorneys. The probe has revealed information about agency practices under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, including an admission from his former White House liaison that she looked at whether candidates for career positions at Justice were Republicans or Democrats.
Besieged by calls for his resignation but supported by Bush, Gonzales yesterday delivered remarks to the Senate full of regret for his agency's troubles, accompanied by a commitment to repair the damage. He made no reference to the fired US attorneys.
"I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department," Gonzales said in remarks prepared for his Senate testimony today. "I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated.
"I have never been one to quit," he said.
His earnestness was unlikely to blunt Democrats' efforts, slated to advance on several fronts this week and could culminate in federal court.
Procedurally, a single contempt citation against Bolten and Miers faces few obstacles. A majority of Conyers's committee would advance the measure to the full House, where a majority would be needed to pass it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, would then refer the matter to the US attorney for the District of Columbia.