Panel to seek contempt charges against Bolten, Miers
White House, lawmakers disagree on whether a president can extend executive privilege to bar production of documents and testimony.
Amid bitter partisan sniping, the House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend that the House cite White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the investigation of firings of U.S. attorneys.
The vote put Congress and the White House on a head-on collision over whether a president can extend executive privilege to bar production of documents and testimony to present and former White House officials. On a party line 22-17 vote, the panel recommended the full House seek contempt charges against Bolten for refusing to turn over documents to the committee, and against Miers for refusing to appear or produce documents as directed by congressional subpoenas.
Republicans charge the probe is a "fishing expedition" with no evidence of wrongdoing by the White House to support the rare action of bringing contempt proceedings. Angry Democrats said it was "audacious" for Miers and Bolten not to cooperate even though President Bush has invoked executive privilege and prevented their testimony and release of White House e-mails and documents.
If the House votes to cite them for contempt, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia would have to decide whether to indict. But the White House has said that the prosecutor as an agent of the administration's Justice Department will not bring charges. Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor subject to prison terms up to one year and fines up to $100 but it is considered a serious constitutional charge.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said he was not launching the contempt proceedings lightly. While he said the president has power to fire U.S. attorneys, the issue is "whether any administration can terminate or retain such individuals in order to influence pending criminal investigations or influence an election."
Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the committee was wasting its time that could be spent on crime-fighting and other legislation. "While Democrats continue to play political games critical issues facing the American people are being neglected," Smith said.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., proposed the panel hold off on the contempt move and ask the House clerk to file a civil lawsuit to settle the issue of executive privilege. He said he feared the contempt citation case could lose in court and jeopardize future congressional efforts to gather information.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow slammed Democrats for what he deemed a waste of time and political theater that distracted lawmakers from working on legislation such as the appropriations bills. "The question is, 'Why are they doing this rather than the people's business?' " he said.
NEXT STORY: Diet Soda Makes You Fat, Too