Bush and Congress locked in power dispute
The White House won't release documents on domestic surveillance or allow aides to testify on US attorney firings.
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Moreover, Judiciary panel investigations found many inconsistencies in the official explanations of the firings of US attorneys last year. This "heightens our concern about the involvement of White House officials in these firings and in the inaccurate testimony given to our Committees, about them, including possible obstruction of justice and other violations of federal law," they wrote.Skip to next paragraph
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Should the standoff continue, Congress's next option is to seek a Senate or House contempt citation and take the matter to a grand jury. Since 1975, Congress has issued only 10 such contempt citations, but typically a compromise is reached before criminal proceedings begin.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel, urged Democrats to try to resolve the issue. "We ought to give consideration to bringing in those individuals and find out what we can under the president's terms. It doesn't preclude us from proceeding with the subpoenas at a later time," he said in a news briefing last week.
While Congress is doing a lot of wheel spinning, the Justice Department continues in "total disarray," Senator Specter added. A court battle could go on for two years, so Congress should "take what information we can get now [and] try to see if we can't wind this up," he said.
The stakes are high on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, legal analysts say. "The political branches realize it's in their own best interest to reach some sort of accommodation," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
"It would take a couple of years by the time it's all resolved. In some sense the White House wins the war of attrition. But it's also being tried in the court of public opinion, and the White House looks like it's trying to hide something," he adds.
A new round of subpoenas by the Senate Judiciary Committee over the NSA warrantless surveillance program threatens another clash with the White House over executive privilege. Leahy said that Congress was not seeing operational details on the program, but rather its legal justification. Last week, White House spokesman Tony Snow called the subpoenas "an outrageous request."
This issue does not fall out along simple partisan lines. The vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee to authorize subpoenas on the warrantless surveillance program was 10 to 3.
"There are a lot of Republicans who have been very uncomfortable both with the expansion of presidential power and the lack of deference to Congress at all by the Bush administration," says Zelizer.
But critics say the NSA program poses even more significant questions over executive power than the attorney firings. "Domestic wiretapping is a critical issue for congressional oversight to ensure that the authorities granted to the executive [branch] to protect the nation do not trample constitutional rights of our citizens. Were we to allow that, we would have lost dramatically without the terrorists taking another life," says Richard Ben-Veniste, a former 9/11 commissioner.