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Aides may face criminal contempt

Laurie Kellman Associated Press

WASHINGTON – House Democrats on Monday targeted two of President Bush’s longtime aides for criminal contempt against Congress, escalating a legal fight over executive privilege and access to White House deliberations on the firings of federal prosecutors.

Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would vote Wednesday on citing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Counsel Harriet Miers for contempt of Congress.

“It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter,” Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement after being told again by their attorneys that Bolten and Miers would not comply with the committee’s subpoenas.

The administration showed no signs of budging from its position that the president’s current and former advisers are immune from congressional subpoenas and that any White House documents related to the dismissals are protected by executive privilege.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the decision to act on any House-passed contempt citation would be up to the Justice Department – but would be inconsistent with the agency’s previous positions.

“The Justice Department long has believed, in Democratic and Republican administrations, that criminal contempt of Congress statutes do not apply to a president or subordinates who assert executive privilege,” Snow said in a statement.

There were indications, however, that the administration was seeking to repair some political damage Democrats have inflicted during their nearly seven-month investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The probe has revealed information about agency practices under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, including an admission from his former White House liaison that she looked at whether candidates for career positions at Justice were Republicans or Democrats.

Besieged by calls for his resignation but supported by Bush, Gonzales on Monday delivered remarks to the Senate full of regret for his agency’s troubles accompanied by a commitment to repair the damage. He made no reference to the fired U.S. attorneys.

“I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department,” Gonzales said in remarks prepared for his Senate testimony Tuesday. “I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated.”

“I have never been one to quit,” Gonzales said.

His earnestness was unlikely to blunt Democrats’ efforts in a constitutional showdown that could culminate in federal court.

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