WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Monday targeted two of President Bush's longtime aides for criminal contempt against Congress, escalating a legal fight over executive privilege and access to White House deliberations on the firings of federal prosecutors.
Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would vote Wednesday on citing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Counsel Harriet Miers for contempt of Congress.
"It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter," Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement after being told again by their attorneys that Bolten and Miers would not comply with the committee's subpoenas.
The administration showed no signs of budging from its position that the president's current and former advisers are immune from congressional subpoenas and that any White House documents related to the dismissals are protected by executive privilege.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the decision to act on any House-passed contempt citation would be up to the Justice Department _ but would be inconsistent with the agency's previous positions.
"The Justice Department long has believed, in Democratic and Republican administrations, that criminal contempt of Congress statutes do not apply to a president or subordinates who assert executive privilege," Snow said in a statement to The Associated Press.
There were indications, however, that the administration was seeking to repair some political damage Democrats have inflicted during their nearly seven-month investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The probe has revealed information about agency practices under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, including an admission from his former White House liaison that she looked at whether candidates for career positions at Justice were Republicans or Democrats.
Besieged by calls for his resignation but supported by Bush, Gonzales on Monday delivered remarks to the Senate full of regret for his agency's troubles accompanied by a commitment to repair the damage. He made no reference to the fired U.S. attorneys.
"I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department," Gonzales said in remarks prepared for his Senate testimony Tuesday. "I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated."
"I have never been one to quit," Gonzales said.
His earnestness was unlikely to blunt Democrats' efforts, slated to advance on several fronts this week in a constitutional showdown that could culminate in federal court.
Procedurally, a single contempt citation against Bolten and Miers faces few obstacles. A majority of Conyers' committee would advance the measure to the full House, where a majority would be needed to pass it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would then refer the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
From there, the prospects get muddled.
The district's U.S. attorney, Jeff Taylor, is a Bush appointee. It was unclear whether the White House would allow a prosecution of criminal contempt to move forward, since the refusal to comply is based upon Bush's claim of executive privilege.
The law says that the House speaker refers a contempt citation to the U.S. attorney, "whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action." But it's far from clear what "shall" means in that case.
During the Reagan administration, the House voted 259-105 in 1982 for a contempt citation against EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch. The Justice Department refused to prosecute the case and later sued the House. At a judge's direction, the two sides negotiated a resolution.
Nearly certain, however, is the skeptical reception Gonzales faces Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"There are probably only two people on Earth who think the attorney general ought to stay: Alberto Gonzales and President Bush," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a committee member who was the first senator to call for Gonzales' resignation, said Monday.
For now, Gonzales appears to have weathered the political furor that began with the prosecutor firings last year and subsequently revealed a Justice Department hiring process that favored Republican loyalists.
In his prepared opening statement, Gonzales reminded senators that the Justice Department has launched an internal investigation _ one beyond his control _ into the accusations. The results are not expected for months.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes Jordan and Ben Feller contributed to this report.