WASHINGTON – The battle over whether to subpoena White House aides grew personal Thursday after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was willing to negotiate about sworn testimony by some staffers, but not presidential guru Karl Rove.
Early Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed by voice vote to authorize Chairman Patrick Leahy to send up subpoenas for Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and others who may have knowledge of or a role in the firing of eight former U.S. attorneys.
Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is trying to negotiate a compromise between Judiciary Committee Democrats and the White House to avoid subpoenas being issued. He suggested several ideas, including letting a limited number of House and Senate lawmakers hear from White House aides who were not under oath and making a transcript available of those proceedings.
Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats can wait, but not indefinitely, on issuing the legal orders while Specter tries to sort out a compromise. He said the caucus would make a decision about a go-time after the Senate returns from its Easter recess.
The leader said Democrats may be willing to allow some aides to testify under oath while others do not. But one person who they insist makes a sworn statement is Rove.
"As I've said before, we don't have to have the same rule apply for everybody. Maybe some would have to be under oath, some not," Reid said. Asked why Rove, Reid pulled his thumb and forefinger together and said, "Because he came this close to being indicted."
Rove was cleared by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the case of the leak of former CIA employee Valerie Plame's name despite claims by opponents that he should have been indicted alongside former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Rove testified several times under oath before the grand jury investigating the leak.
Rove attorney Robert Luskin issued a taut response to Reid's comments about the president's top presidential strategist.
"Due process is not about pursuing the results you want. It means respecting the results you get. Senator Reid should show a healthier respect for our system of justice than his unwarranted remarks reflect," Ruskin said.
Reid spoke as Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent White House Counsel Fred Fielding a letter rejecting President Bush's offer to allow his aides to speak informally to Congress about White House involvement in the decision to dismiss the federal prosecutors. They were removed in December.
"Your proposal would unacceptably constrain our ability to investigate; it would deny us access to relevant information; it would interfere with our ability to learn the truth by pre-selecting only certain documents or witnesses; and it would unduly limit the scope of the investigation by prejudging its outcome," reads the letter signed by the panel's 10 Democrats to Counsel Fred Fielding.
"Moreover, you insist that the interviews with White House staff be in the nature of off the record, private conversations. There have been a number of such informal briefings already and they have all proved unsatisfactory and provided less than the whole truth," they wrote.
Deputy Press Secretary, Dana Perino said the offer still stands, whether Democrats are interested in it or not.
"They've been presented an opportunity to get to the bottom of the matter. By ascertaining all the facts. Unfortunately the letter shows, they aren't as interested in ascertaining the facts than going on a political fishing expedition," Perino said. "We remain hopeful they will see the wisdom of this reasonable offer. If they want to chose constitutional confrontation over accommodation and resolution that's their choice."
Earlier in the day, committee Democrats said they were showing restraint by approving the subpoenas but not yet sending them over to the White House.
"We're authorizing that ability but we're not issuing them," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the subpoenas. "It'll only strengthen our hand in getting to the bottom of this."
In an exchange before the vote, Leahy and Specter volleyed over why it was necessary to use the legal order to talk to the officials who the White House has offered up under more informal procedures.
"I have had enough of these closed door meetings where they come up here one day and then the next they say, 'Whoops.' ... They call up and say, 'Oh yes, I guess we left a few things out or we were misleading. Can we have another one of those private meetings?' I am tired of that," said Leahy, D-Vt.
Specter, who warned earlier this week that the issuance of subpoenas could lead to a court challenge, then asked the chairman: "Will this investigation be best served by finding out what we can now as opposed to litigation which will take more than two years? ... If we don't like what we get, we can always issue a subpoena, and ... why not take what we can get?"
"We're told what we can get is nothing, nothing nothing," Leahy boomed.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the same action for its chairman on Wednesday, but Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he too wanted to wait to see what negotiations with the White House would bring before issuing the subpoenas. On Thursday, that panel's Democrats sent their own letter to Fielding rejecting the president's offer.
While lawmakers moved forward with subpoena plans, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales vowed to stay on the job after repeated calls for his resignation.
"I'm not gonna resign," Gonzales said after a Project Safe Childhood event in St. Louis. "I am going to stay focused on protecting our kids."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Bush has offered a deal that he says would give members of Congress highly unusual access to communication and individuals related to this issue. Snow suggested that Democrats who don't find that acceptable are more interested in a public spectacle than the truth.
Snow said it's not necessary for the aides to speak under oath or in public testimony. Bush also said he doesn't want a transcript of the proceedings with lawmakers and their aides.
"If you're talking to Congress, and you're talking to the House and Senate, as White House officials would be doing, if you lie, it's against the law. You could go to jail. So there's a legal prohibition. Furthermore, the president's going to tell each and every one of them: 'tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,'" Snow told FOX News.
But some Democrats say if no transcript is allowed and it's not on camera, then there is no guarantee they will get the truth.
"We need to be able to get people on record, on transcript, under oath, transparent before the public," Sen. Dianne Feinstein told FOX News.
Prosecutors are appointed to four-year terms by the president and serve at his pleasure, meaning they can dismissed at any time. The White House has said the firings last year were appropriate, but Feinstein argued they were politically motivated.
"Never before in the middle of a president’s term has a block of U.S. attorneys been essentially fired so it is an unusual circumstance. Six out of the eight U.S. attorneys were either involved in the investigation of or the prosecution of public corruption cases. Most of those cases involved other Republicans. One involved the allegation that the U.S. attorney wasn’t strong enough in the prosecution of the Washington state governor’s race," Feinstein said.
Feinstein earlier said she also wants to know more about a gap in the timeframe in the 3,000 e-mails and other documents sent up to Congress by the Department of Justice earlier this week. The gap falls right before the mass firings on Dec. 7.
Snow told reporters on Wednesday that he knew nothing about any missing e-mails.
Meanwhile, allegations against Gonzales continued as Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., claimed Gonzales lied to him when he said he planned to seek confirmation for a prosecutor named to replace fired Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins. Pryor already has asked for Gonzales' resignation, as have three Republican lawmakers.
Asked whether Democrats can accept the attorney general at his word, Feinstein told FOX News they could not.
"The attorney general has also said that he didn’t know anything about this before, now he’s saying that has changed. This attorney general, right now, has very low credibility. At least with one half of the Congress," she said.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.