Deal sought for testimony on prosecutors
Bid to question Rove, others without oath
WASHINGTON -- A Senate Republican offered President Bush a compromise yesterday in the standoff over the dismissals of federal prosecutors, suggesting that select lawmakers question Karl Rove and other administration officials in public, but not under oath.
White House counsel Fred Fielding promised to convey the offer to Bush, said Senator Arlen Specter, who took the first step toward brokering a deal a few hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved, but did not issue, subpoenas for Rove and others.
Specter's plan would grant one of Bush's key demands -- that the officials named in the subpoena authorization testify without being sworn. But the proposal dismisses other White House conditions by suggesting that Rove and the others testify in public.
"Mr. Fielding did not accept or reject it," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Presidential press secretary Tony Snow again cast the administration's offer to allow Rove and the others to talk to lawmakers in private as the best deal Democrats are going to get. "We opened with a compromise," he told reporters.
Democrats did not budge from their insistence that Rove be questioned publicly and under oath.
"I've had a lot of those unstructured briefings and found that I was given, in many instances, not the whole truth, nothing near the whole truth." said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
His committee took a voice vote yesterday and gave Leahy the authority to issue subpoenas for Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, and her deputy, William Kelley. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, was given that same authority a day earlier.
But neither chairman appeared in a rush to issue the subpoenas to White House officials and provoke a showdown.
In letters yesterday, Senate and House Democrats rejected Fielding's offer to let Rove and other officials talk about their roles in the firings, but only on Bush's terms: in private, off the record, and not under oath.
"I have never heard the Senate take an ultimatum like that," Leahy said.
"I know he's the decider for the White House," Leahy added, referring to Bush, "but he's not the decider for the United States Senate."
Nonetheless, the offer stands, Perino said.
"Unfortunately, these letters show they aren't as interested in ascertaining the facts than going on a political fishing expedition," she said.
Specter, the Senate committee's former chairman, insisted room for compromise remains.
"Rejections in a news conference don't count," said Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania. "Rejections eyeball to eyeball count."
He suggested the committees could grant the president's demand that his aides not be required to take an oath, but persuade the White House to allow public proceedings with perhaps 16 House and Senate Judiciary Committee members asking questions.
Taking an oath was not necessary, Specter said, because congressional witnesses are required by law to tell the truth.
Specter also said the situation might benefit from time. "The dust has to settle first," Specter said.
On that, Snow agreed, "We're going to let this thing simmer a little bit and let people reflect on it."
The developments occurred as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, struggling to save his job from increasing calls for his resignation over the firings, promised to cooperate with Congress.
"I'm not going to resign," Gonzales told reporters after an event in St. Louis, the first in a series of meetings with federal prosecutors in coming days in an apparent attempt to patch up relations tattered by the scandal.
"No United States attorney was fired for improper reasons," Gonzales said.
Representative Paul Gillmor, Republican of Ohio, said Gonzales has become a "lightning rod" for criticism, joining a growing number of GOP lawmakers who want Gonzales out. "It would be better for the president and the department if the attorney general were to step down," Gillmor said.
Members of both parties want to know why the Justice Department fired eight well-regarded US attorneys over the winter, whether politicians pressured the prosecutors to rush corruption cases, and whether the firings were punishments for the prosecutors' balking at Bush administration priorities.
Lawmakers also want answers on whether the firings were to make way for more loyal Bush allies, as the White House has acknowledged doing in Arkansas.
Gonzales has said that he intends to submit every replacement appointee to the confirmation process. But an e-mail from his then-top aide suggests the intent was to use delays that would let the replacement prosecutors serve without Senate approval through the rest of Bush's term.
The White House reaffirmed yesterday that there is nothing to show that Bush was aware of the plan for replacing the eight federal prosecutors.
The question arose because Miers wrote in an e-mail from Nov. 15, 2006, that she was unsure whether the plan would require "the boss's attention. If it does, he just left last night so would not be able to accomplish that for some time."