Bid to punish Bush aides may fail
The House and Senate have escalated efforts in the US attorneys case, but the White House may delay a resolution.
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Since that 1857 law, contempt citations have been voted out of committee nine times. In every instance, "There was either full or substantial compliance with the demands of the committee that had issued the subpoena," the report concludes.Skip to next paragraph
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Not surprisingly, contempt citations are typically issued at times of divided government. Past targets include Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1975); Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano (1978); Secretary of the Interior James Watt (1982); and Attorney General Janet Reno (1998).
The criminal contempt statute has advanced to a full vote by the House only once, in a dispute between the Reagan White House and the Democrat-controlled House over litigation by the Environmental Protection Agency. It was resolved by compromise before reaching the courts.
But this time, the Bush administration is maintaining a tougher line. Although federal law says that it's the "duty" of the United States attorney to bring the matter before a grand jury for action, the White House has already signaled that if Congress votes for contempt citations, it will instruct the US attorney not to take the issue to a grand jury.
"Historically, these kinds of struggles have been worked out through some type of compromise," says Charles Cooper, a former Reagan administration official in the Office of Legal Counsel, who drafted the opinion that the Bush administration is relying on in its standoff with Congress over criminal contempt citations.
"I haven't given up hope that this will be worked out. But if we assume for a moment that there's just no give at all anymore on either side, then the president's analysis of how at least the contempt citation will play out is quite accurate: The US attorney would be bound as the president's subordinate and as the functionary responsible for exercising the president's law enforcement power to obey the president and not to present that citation to a grand jury," he adds.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary panel debated both sides of that issue on Wednesday. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, a former chairman of that committee, said that the contempt resolution was "an unnecessary provocation of a constitutional crisis" that the White House was likely to win.
"I'm quite concerned about the fact that if we do bring a case to court ... and lose, then that is going to be viewed as a blank check by the present president and the future president to do whatever they want to to effectively stiff the Congress in discharging their oversight responsibilities," he said.
In his opening statement, chairman John Conyers (D) of Michigan said that it's a risk Congress must take. "If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up, where privilege can be asserted on the thinnest basis and in the broadest possible manner, then we've already lost. We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee or any other," he said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are prospecting other ways out of the impasse. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has suggested the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the attorney firings or reverting to the earlier model and trying a contempt citation in the Senate. In a press briefing on Thursday, he said he does not support the call, also on Thursday, by four Senate Democrats to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has perjured himself in testimony before the Congress. He called the move "precipitous."