A congressional panel moved toward seeking contempt charges against former White House counsel Harriet Miers on Thursday after she refused to appear — under orders from President George W. Bush — at a hearing on the firing of federal prosecutors.
The White House promptly accused the Democratic-led Congress of looking for a fight and failing to understand separation of federal powers.
“The committee is rejecting accommodation because they prefer just the kind of political spectacle,” said spokesman Tony Fratto.
On a party-line vote of 7-5, a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee rejected the contention that Bush’s claim of executive privilege allowed Miers’ not to attend its hearing or testify on what she knows about fired prosecutors.
“I hereby rule that those claims are not legally valid, and that Ms. Miers is required pursuant to the subpoena to be here now and to produce documents and answer questions,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat.
After her panel adopted the ruling, Sanchez said, “This subcommittee and the full committee will take under advisement what next steps are warranted.”
Internal documents show Miers was involved in a plan that originated at the White House and stretched to the Justice Department that led to the dismissal last year of nine of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys.
Despite administration claims to the contrary, critics charge the ousters seemed politically motivated, perhaps to even influence probes of Democratic or Republican lawmakers.
Unless the White House reaches a compromise with lawmakers, the House Judiciary Committee could vote to hold Miers in contempt of Congress.
If the full House of Representatives concurs, the case would be referred to a U.S. attorney to seek a grand jury indictment.
Bush has offered to allow Miers and other current and former White House aides to talk to lawmakers, but only behind closed doors, without a transcript and not under oath.
Democrats have rejected it, but have pushed for compromise since a court fight could stretch beyond Bush’s second term, which ends in January 2009.
Miers finds herself in the middle of this battle two years after the president withdrew his nomination of her to the U.S. Supreme Court following opposition from fellow conservatives.
Miers refused to attend the House hearing under orders from Bush a day after another former White House aide, Sara Taylor, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in its investigation of the fired prosecutors.
But at Bush’s direction, Taylor refused to answer a number of questions about the firings.
Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have said the dismissals were justified, but mishandled. With the support of Bush, Gonzales has rejected bipartisan calls to resign.
Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican, said unless Democrats produced evidence of wrongdoing, “It is time for the majority to stop swaggering its power in this Congress, to clothe itself in prudence and to back off this pointless constitutional showdown.”