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Congress weighs immunity offer

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., seen in March, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., seen in March, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The confrontation between Congress and the administration over the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys escalated again Tuesday as Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said they are weighing an offer of immunity to a potential key witness in the investigation.

At the same time, the Republican National Committee on Tuesday turned down congressional demands that it turn over e-mails related to the dismissals, angering House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.

Frustrated by Monica Goodling’s refusal to testify, committee Democrats said they may grant limited-use immunity to the former counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Such a grant of immunity, which would require the approval of two-thirds of the nearly 40-member panel, would free Goodling to speak about the plan to fire the U.S. attorneys and the dismissals’ aftermath, without fear that prosecutors could use her testimony in a criminal proceeding. Goodling has invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

Conyers cited Goodling’s dual role as Gonzales’ aide and the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House for the unusual immunity offer, saying she could “clear up the many inconsistencies and gaps surrounding this matter.”

“Ms. Goodling, clearly, has much to contribute to the committee’s understanding of the surrounding circumstances,” Conyers said.

The immunity vote was initially set for today but has been postponed until later this month, aides said.

Eight U.S. attorneys were dismissed last year as part of a plan originated in the White House to replace them based in part on their perceived disloyalty to President Bush and his policies. The subsequent uproar has grown because some information in the thousands of pages of internal e-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department have conflicted with some of the public statements and testimony of Gonzales and his top deputies regarding the rationale for the dismissals.

Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The RNC deferred Tuesday to White House requests that all documents from administration officials who used RNC e-mail accounts must first be reviewed by President Bush’s lawyers. Congress has requested several years’ worth of e-mails from top White House advisers, including Karl Rove, as part of its investigation of the prosecutor firings. In letters to the House and Senate judiciary committees, an RNC lawyer said those documents belong to the White House.

“Recognizing the unique and significant nature of the potential privilege issue raised by the committee’s requests, the RNC has agreed to the White House’s reasonable request,” Robert Kelner, an RNC lawyer, wrote to Conyers.

Conyers responded that the action was “a clear attempt, on the administration’s part, to delay this process.”

House and Senate investigators have focused on e-mails by a J. Scott Jennings, the White House’s deputy political director, who used RNC e-mail accounts to discuss Rove’s interest in appointing a former deputy as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock.