WASHINGTON — Former top Bush aides Karl Rove and Harriet Miers agreed Wednesday to testify before Congress under oath about the firings of U.S. attorneys, a controversy involving allegations of political interference that grew into a constitutional standoff between two branches of government.
The Bush White House had fought attempts to force Rove and Miers to testify, and the agreement _ steered by aides to President Barack Obama _ ended that dispute. Both the White House and lawmakers, especially now that Democrat Obama has replaced Republican George W. Bush _ were leery of having a judge settle the question about the limits of executive privilege, for fear of losing.
The agreement calls for Rove and Miers, Bush's top political adviser and White House counsel, to be interviewed by the House Judiciary Committee in closed depositions "under the penalty for perjury," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. The committee says it also might call the two for public testimony.
The arrangement ends a lawsuit over whether former White House aides could be forced to testify about matters on which they advised the president. Bush had ordered Rove and Miers not to testify in the U.S. attorneys investigation, and the Judiciary Committee sued a year ago.
Last July, U.S. District Judge John Bates rejected Bush's contention that senior White House advisers were immune from the committee's subpoenas, siding with Congress' power to investigate the executive branch. The Bush administration had appealed the decision.
Until this dispute, Congress had never gone to court to demand the testimony of White House aides. Bates had suggested that the two sides settle to avoid a ruling that would be binding of future presidents and members of Congress.
Justice Department officials said the committee and the Obama administration would make a joint filing to the court asking the judge to stay the lawsuit over the issue. If the agreement is breached, the case could be revived.
Bush spokesman Rob Saliterman said Wednesday, "At the urging of the Obama administration, and in consideration of the executive branch interests at stake, we have reached an accommodation with the House Judiciary Committee that satisfies the committee's desire for additional information and will finally put this matter to rest."
White House Counsel Greg Craig said the deal came after "a tremendous amount of hard work, patience and flexibility on both sides."
"The agreement will allow the committee to complete its investigation into the U.S. attorneys matter, and it will do so in the way such disputes have historically been resolved _ through negotiation and accommodation between the legislative and executive branches," Craig said. "The president is pleased that the parties have agreed to resolve this matter amicably."
Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said the former White House adviser had always said he was not asserting any personal privilege to refuse to appear but was following the president's direction on executive privilege.
"Within these constraints, we have worked hard to find a constructive way to address the committee's concerns and are pleased that the committee and President Bush were able to resolve their differences," Luskin said.
At issue is the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, who Bush administration officials claimed at first were let go because of poor performance. U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, but cannot be fired for improper reasons.
An internal Justice Department investigation concluded that, despite the administration's denials, political considerations played a part in the firings of as many as four of the federal prosecutors.
The report singled out the removal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in New Mexico as the most troubling. Iglesias's firing followed complaints from leading Republican political figures in New Mexico about his handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases. The report also found that Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Arkansas, was forced out to make way for Timothy Griffin, who had previously been Rove's deputy in the White House political office.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey named a special prosecutor in September to investigate whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, other Bush administration officials or Republicans in Congress should face criminal charges in the firings.
The Bush White House had argued that the hiring and firing of presidential appointees is strictly the business of the executive branch. The administration had offered to let aides discuss the matter privately with Congress but objected to formal testimony under a subpoena.
Conyers said the committee also has the right to take a deposition from William Kelley, a former White House lawyer who played a role in the firings, and that Bush administration documents relevant to the dismissals will be turned over to the committee.
"This is a victory for the separation of powers and congressional oversight," Conyers said in a statement. "It is also a vindication of the search for truth. I am determined to have it known whether U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice were fired for political reasons, and if so, by whom."
The committee will probably make the transcripts public, said a committee aide, who wasn't authorized to immediately disclose committee plans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the agreement "is a great victory for the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers."
"Congress now has the opportunity to uncover the truth and determine whether improper criteria were used by the Bush administration to dismiss and retain U.S. attorneys," she said.
Associated Press writers Larry Margasak, Ken Thomas and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.