WASHINGTON — President Bush is expected to claim executive privilege to prevent two more White House aides from testifying before Congress about the firings of federal prosecutors.
Thursday is the deadline for Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, to provide testimony and documents related to the firings, under a subpoena from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Also subpoenaed was White House political aide J. Scott Jennings. The Justice Department included both men on e-mails about the firings and the administration's response to the congressional investigation.
White House Counsel Fred Fielding has consistently said that top presidential aides _ present and past _ are immune from subpoenas and has declared the documents sought off-limits under executive privilege.
The House Judiciary Committee already has approved a contempt citation against two other Bush confidants, chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. The full House is expected to vote on the citation in the fall, but the Justice Department has said it won't prosecute the two.
Sara Taylor, the former White House political director, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month and sought to answer some lawmakers' questions and remain mum on others, citing Bush's claim of privilege.
The controversy over the firings has grown into a larger dispute between Congress and the White House over the credibility of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Lawmakers have questioned whether Gonzales testified truthfully over the government's secret surveillance program.
Bush met with congressional leaders Wednesday to press for action on a proposal to expand the surveillance program and get it done before Congress goes on recess at week's end.
The administration is pushing to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow surveillance without a warrant of terror suspects who are overseas. The proposal, offered late last week by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, is designed to fix what the White House says is a glaring problem: the missing of significant foreign intelligence that could protect the country against terrorist attacks.
"To the extent that more flexibility is needed, as Director McConnell has indicated, we are prepared to make those accommodations under the law," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after congressional leaders met with Bush at the White House Wednesday. "We hope to do that this week."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he, too, thought the matter would be worked out. But he would not predict timing, as Pelosi did.
"In the Senate, I don't promise any legislation," Reid said. He said the hang-up is "what the involvement of the attorney general will be."
Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate have openly questioned the truthfulness of Gonzales, whom they also accuse of helping Bush exploit executive power at the expense of civil liberties and possibly beyond the law on an array of matters.
The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said he saw bipartisan willingness to get the legislation done before the Congress goes into recess.
The White House responded with measured optimism.
"I think they understand and appreciate the importance," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said of Democratic leaders. "We will see."
The administration believes the FISA court under existing law must approve certain spying because many conversations and contacts taking place overseas are routed through U.S.-based communication carriers, satellites or Internet providers.
Its latest proposal is narrower than what the administration sought in April: a slew of changes to the 1978 FISA law.
That law created a court which meets in secret to review applications from the FBI, the NSA and other agencies to investigate suspected spies, terrorists or other national security threats. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop _ without requiring a warrant beforehand from the FISA court _ on calls between people in the U.S. and others overseas when terrorism is suspected.
After the program became public and was challenged in court, Bush earlier this year put it under FISA court supervision.
On spending matters, the Democrats and Bush appeared to get nowhere in their breakfast meeting.
Bush has threatened vetoes or signaled veto threats against most of the 12 annual spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The differences between Bush and Congress involve $23 billion in funding _ a gap that the Democrats call small, and the White House portrays as wasteful.
Pelosi said the president was firm on his stand, but she added, "I'm not one to take no for an answer."