WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday escalated a constitutional showdown with President Bush, approving the first ever contempt of Congress citations against West Wing aides and reigniting last year’s battle over the scope of executive privilege.
On a 223-32 vote, the House approved contempt citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that administration officials sought to politicize the Justice Department.
The vote came after a morning of tense partisan bickering over parliamentary rules. The conflict was capped later in the day when most House Republicans walked off the floor and refused to cast a final vote. They accused Democrats of forcing a partisan vote on the contempt citations instead of approving a surveillance law supported by Bush.
Democrats said they were left with no choice but to engage in a legal showdown with Bush because he has refused for nearly a year to allow any current or former West Wing staff member to testify in the inquiry. Citing executive privilege, the president has offered their testimony only if it is taken without transcripts and not under oath.
“This is beyond arrogance. This is hubris taken to the ultimate degree,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in the closing moments of the debate.
The administration immediately condemned the House action, noting that no White House official has ever been cited for contempt.
The contempt resolution against Bolten cites his refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents and e-mails sought by the House Judiciary Committee in its now year-long investigation into the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Miers was cited for refusing to testify after she was subpoenaed to appear before the panel last summer.
The furor over the fired prosecutors began last January when congressional Democrats learned that seven U.S. attorneys were fired on the same day, Dec. 7, 2006. Most senior staff of the department resigned as the congressional investigations unfolded; former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the subject of an internal investigation into whether he tampered with a likely witness.
Democrats said their votes were efforts to compel more information from a White House that has blocked their efforts to conclude the investigation.
By law, the contempt citations go to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey Taylor, but the White House and Justice Department have said that no executive branch employee will face a grand jury inquiry.
House Democrats already were looking ahead. They included a second provision in the resolution Thursday that would allow the House general counsel to file a civil lawsuit to compel Bolten and Miers’ testimony.