WASHINGTON – The decision by two congressional panels to issue subpoenas to the White House on Wednesday escalates a constitutional showdown over the Justice Department’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys that could end up being decided by the federal courts.
The subpoenas from the House and Senate Judiciary committees are the first to be served directly on the White House or its staff in the U.S. attorney firings. They signal that Democrats are willing to pursue protracted litigation to determine whether President Bush or his top aides played a significant role in identifying prosecutors to be removed.
The demands target former White House counsel Harriet Miers, who first suggested a mass firing of prosecutors after the 2004 elections, and Sara Taylor, the former White House political director who figured prominently in efforts to name a former colleague as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock.
The two panels also issued subpoenas to the White House for documents related to the prosecutor dismissals.
The White House gave no indication that it intends to comply with the demands. “It’s clear that they’re trying to create some media drama,” said spokesman Tony Snow, referring to Democratic lawmakers.
By targeting two former administration officials, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., are hoping that Miers and Taylor might decide to reach accords with the House and Senate committees, regardless of the administration’s interests, according to congressional aides.
A similar tactic resulted in damaging public testimony earlier this year from D. Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, two former senior aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who were at the center of the prosecutor dismissals.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats are keenly interested in obtaining testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove, but first must question other White House officials. A succession of Justice officials has denied responsibility for placing prosecutors’ names on the firing lists.
“We still haven’t found out who actually concocted this scheme,” Schumer said.
Taylor’s attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, suggested Wednesday that his client was open to cooperation, saying in a statement that Taylor “takes her responsibilities as a citizen very seriously.”
Miers did not respond to a message left Wednesday with her law office in Dallas.
Conyers said “this subpoena is not a request, it is a demand on behalf of the American people.” Leahy said the administration “cannot stonewall congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses while claiming nothing improper occurred.”
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Congress should accept the administration’s offer to let Rove and other officials be interviewed privately and not under oath.
“The committees can easily obtain the facts they want without this confrontational approach,” Fratto said.
One constitutional law expert said Wednesday that the White House is in a difficult legal position, with little ability to refuse the subpoenas.
“They’re in the unsustainable position of refusing to explain the increasing evidence of a cover-up,” said Charles Tiefer, of the University of Baltimore Law School.
Tiefer, former deputy House counsel in the 1980s, said the White House does not have standing to try to quash the subpoenas preemptively.
That leaves White House counsel Fred Fielding with the choice of a negotiated settlement or a showdown in federal court.
The top Republican on the Senate panel, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he supported Leahy’s and Conyers’ decision to issue the subpoenas.
Specter said he called Fielding again Wednesday in a final attempt to work out a compromise. Leahy also met privately with Fielding on Friday in his Senate offices, according to a senior aide.