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Capitol Hill watchdogs are baring their teeth

President Obama would rather look to the future, but Democrats persist in probing the Bush administration’s alleged misdeeds.

By Staff writer / January 27, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is asserting authority.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Washington

With the nation losing jobs at a sobering rate, President Obama, on Capitol Hill for meetings with Republicans Tuesday, wants to keep Congress focused on the current economic needs.

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But the power shift in Washington is also giving Congress an opening to dig into political controversies of the past – a move that Mr. Obama, both as candidate and president, said he would rather avoid. Exhibit A is the congressional subpoena for former Bush adviser Karl Rove, issued on Monday.

“Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it,” said Rep. John Conyers (D) of Mich., who chairs the House Judiciary panel that issued the subpoena. “After two years of stonewalling, it’s time for him to talk.”

At issue is whether presidential advisers can be compelled to testify before Congress. Chairman Conyers wants Mr. Rove to appear before his panel to answer questions on the 2006 firings of US attorneys, prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D), and “politicization of the Department of Justice.”

The panel also wants the Obama administration to release relevant documents from the Bush administration bearing on these issues.

The legal issues for the new administration are highly controversial, but both the White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress have laid the groundwork for a shift in policy from the Bush administration over executive privilege, which was frequently invoked in the Bush years in clashes with the Congress.

On Day 1 of the new Congress, the House passed a new rules package that included renewal of a lawsuit against Bush administration officials who refused to testify before a House panel investigating dismissals of the US attorneys.

On Day 1 of the new administration, Obama reversed an executive order by President Bush that allowed former presidents and their descendents to indefinitely block the release of their papers. That order leaves the decisions over whether or not to release documents with Obama.

Commenting on this week’s subpoena, Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, says that the issue of executive privilege is not Rove’s to resolve.

“He has previously been directed by President Bush not to appear and to assert the president’s claim of executive privilege. And that direction was reiterated by the [Bush-appointed] White House counsel in mid-January,” said Mr. Luskin, a partner with Patton Boggs LLP in Washington.

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