The conflict between congressional Republicans and Attorney General Janet Reno looked set to ratchet up a notch as a House committee appeared ready yesterday to cite her for contempt of Congress.
Such a highly political vote further limits Ms. Reno's maneuvering room over the question of whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate wrongdoing in 1996 presidential-campaign fund-raising. Frustrated by the attorney general's intransigence, Republicans want to send her a strong message and try to influence her next moves.
If passed, the citation would go to the House, which likely won't take the matter up before it recesses today until Sept. 9.
At issue is whether Ms. Reno should turn over to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee memos from senior officials recommending she appoint an independent counsel.
The controversy raises deeper issues: What happens when Congress's constitutional right to oversee the executive branch conflicts with the executive branch's confidential law-enforcement procedures? What information can Congress properly demand?
"There is no bright fine line," says lawyer Andrew Fois, former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs under Reno. "Both branches have a constitutional duty to perform their respective functions, and the Constitution contemplates that there will be an accommodation reached."
IT is generally assumed that Congress has a right to any information it asks for. But in practice there are important exceptions. First, sensitive intelligence information is shared only with members of the intelligence committees under very controlled procedures. Federal law prohibits the release of information from federal grand jury proceedings. The legislature has also been wary of interfering in ongoing criminal investigations, not wanting to damage prosecutors' cases.
"The one difficulty is on matters like this, when it involves confidential advice.... When it really involves investigative materials relative to a criminal prosecution, Congress usually refrains from acting," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution here.
Reno and the Justice Department argue that the memos in question, written by FBI Director Louis Freeh and Charles LaBella, who headed up a department special task force into campaign-finance irregularities, contain such sensitive information.
In the memos, both men concluded - Mr. Freeh last fall and Mr. LaBella in recent weeks - that the evidence of possible involvement by the president and vice president required the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel. Reno has thus far refused to do so despite repeated urgings from Republicans, although she says she is still reviewing the LaBella paper.
The documents, she said in a Tuesday press conference, "lay out the thinking, theories, and strategies of our prosecutors and investigators, the strengths and weaknesses of our cases."
"Many targets, suspects, and defense lawyers are watching our every move, hoping for clues that will tip them off and help them escape the law's reach," Reno said.
While Democrats have vilified chairman Dan Burton (R) of Indiana for running a partisan probe of 1996 campaign fund-raising, irritated Republicans on the committee appeared to be lining up tightly behind the chairman on the contempt citation.
"These guys [the administration] have stonewalled everything that we've tried to do since I've been in Congress," says GOP moderate Thomas Davis III (R) of Virginia, a committee member. "I've never seen anything like it."
Republicans are willing to compromise, he says: Reno can edit the memos to protect sensitive information.
Reno and the committee faced a similar confrontation last fall when word of the Freeh memo first leaked out. An arrangement was worked out for members to receive a briefing on the memo without seeing the document. Reno Tuesday offered a briefing on the LaBella memo in three weeks, which Freeh and LaBella urged the committee to accept.
By the time the House returns to take up the matter, Reno may have decided whether to appoint an independent counsel. That would make the citation moot.
"It's a political battle between branches in a period of divided government," Mr. Mann says. "At most it will increase political pressure on Reno to appoint an eighth independent counsel.... But from all accounts, that will make Reno less likely to do it."