WASHINGTON – While President Bush was on the road in North Carolina, the General Accounting Office in Washington announced that for the first time in its 80-year history, Congress' investigative arm will sue the White House.
GAO is demanding access to information about Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group.
In a written statement, GAO Comptroller General David Walker called it a matter of principle and precedent.
"The Congress has a right to the information we are seeking in connection with its consideration of comprehensive energy legislation and its ongoing oversight activities."
The White House is also arguing that it is defending principle and that the GAO is acting beyond its jurisdiction without legal authority.
"The president will stand strong on principle, fighting for his right and the right of all future presidents to receive advice without it being turned into a virtual news release. The president will fight for this right in a court of law. And the White House expects to prevail because our case is strong, our policy is sound and principle is on our side," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The GAO wants to force Cheney, who ran the task force, to turn over documents on the meetings held last year with business executives as the Bush administration crafted a new national energy policy.
Some of the meetings included officials from the now-collapsed Enron Corp., a Houston-based energy broker that made significant contributions to several political campaigns, including Bush's 2000 presidential bid.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday that then-Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay gave Cheney a three-page document last April detailing the energy trading company's arguments against price caps or other measures to stabilize electricity prices in California.
"Events in California and in other parts of the country demonstrated that the benefits of competition have yet to be realized and have not reached consumers," the memo said.
The newspaper said some of the positions included in the memo were included in Cheney's energy plan.
An Enron spokesman told the newspaper that Lay gave the memo to Cheney. Mary Matalin, an adviser to Cheney, said the energy plan included input from many sources.
In resisting the GAO, Cheney insists that providing the list of industry executives would harm his ability to receive advice in the future, and that the congressional investigators are overstepping their bounds. The GAO, as a congressional agency, insists it has the authority to request the information.
Any GAO lawsuit would be highly controversial on Capitol Hill. The agency's investigation began after Democrats last year requested that the GAO investigate the conduct, operations and funding of the Cheney energy task force.
The GAO dropped the suit in August after the White House said it was prepared to go to court, but pressure from congressional Democrats in light of the Enron collapse forced GAO to reconsider, earning the support of the House's longest-serving Democrat, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
"I applaud GAO for standing up for the principles of the right of Congress and the people to know who helped shape the administration's energy policy. It is unfortunate that since our request for information last April, the vice president has chosen to stonewall rather than cooperate. As a former official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Mr. Walker has shown that this investigation is about principles, not politics," Dingell said Wednesday.
While the White House, Dingell and the GAO all say the battle is over principle, Democrat Henry Waxman who initiated the GAO inquiry last year and has been a leading critic of the Bush administration's ties to Enron, emphasized politics.
"I am afraid that the investigations might become too narrow. A lot of people say 'let's don't look at the political connections that Enron people have, lets don't look at this, don't look at that.' We need to look at everything," he said.
Waxman, D-Calif., and other House Democrats met with laid off Enron workers who'd lost their pensions and came to Washington seeking help
"We are deeply empathetic and sympathetic with what you face," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told the workers.
The process of filing the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington is expected to take two to four weeks, enough time for a possible compromise. The White House gave no indication that it is willing to compromise, and Walker said that it is "not real hopeful."
On Tuesday, some Republicans had threatened to try to block the suit.
"I think it may come to that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Congress' investigative arm shouldn't be "trying to impose disclosure on internal White House meetings to determine policy," Hatch said. "If you have to do that, pretty soon there wouldn't be any meetings."
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said he and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., planned to "talk to the agency."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he was researching to see whether the GAO would be overstepping its authority by taking on the administration.
"My concerns are that it would encroach upon the deliberative process and make it impossible for the vice president at the direction of the president to make a recommendation," Specter said. "It's also a tricky area on executive privilege."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.