WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said Sunday he was ready to go to court if the White House resisted congressional subpoenas for information on the firing of federal prosecutors.
"If they don't cooperate, yes I'd go that far," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. He was asked in a broadcast interview whether he would seek a congressional vote on contempt citations if President Bush did not comply. That move would push the matter to court.
"They've chosen confrontation rather than compromise or cooperation," Leahy said. "The bottom line on this U.S. attorneys' investigation is that we have people manipulating law enforcement. Law enforcement can't be partisan."
At issue is whether the White House exerted undue political influence in the Justice Department's firing of prosecutors. Leahy's hardening stance is pushing the Democratic-led investigation ever closer to a constitutional showdown over executive power and Congress' right to oversight.
The White House accused the committee of overreaching.
"After thousands of pages of documents, interviews and testimony by Justice Department officials, it's clear that there's simply no merit for this overreach," presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said.
He said Leahy "is seeking access to candid and confidential deliberations from the president's advisers — an intrusion he would never subject his own staff to. We have gone to great lengths to accommodate the committee in their oversight responsibilities."
Separately, the Senate has subpoenaed the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office for documents related to the administration's legal basis for conducting warrant-free eavesdropping on people in the United States.
Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who heads the House Judiciary Committee, have demanded a White House explanation by July 9 as to its grounds for claiming executive privilege in refusing to turn over additional documents.
The two lawmakers say that regardless of whether the White House meets the deadline, they would begin acting to enforce the subpoenas as appropriate under the law.
Legal experts have been somewhat divided over the scope of a president's power to shield information and ensure candid advice from top aides. The dispute, if it does head to court, could take months and ultimately outlast the remaining term of Bush's presidency, which ends in January 2009.
Last week, White House counsel Fred Fielding said Bush was claiming executive privilege. Bush also was invoking the privilege to prevent Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and Sara Taylor, the former political director, from testifying publicly under oath.
The White House has urged the House and Senate Judiciary committees to withdraw the subpoenas and accept Bush's offer to provide information in private briefings with lawmakers without a transcript.
Over the years, Congress and the White House have avoided a full-blown court test. Under federal rules, lawmakers could vote to cite witnesses for contempt and refer the matter to the local U.S. attorney to bring before a grand jury. Since 1975, 10 senior administration officials have been cited, but the disputes were all resolved before getting to court.
On Sunday, Leahy dismissed the White House's proposal for private briefings because, he said, it forecloses Congress' right to subpoena additional information should officials fail to provide meaningful information.
Leahy said he might be open to an offer in which White House officials were to agree to private briefings that were both sworn and committed to a transcript. But ultimately, the public have a right to hear what's been done, he said.
Leahy's committee also has summoned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify this month on the eavesdropping program and an array of other matters that have cost a half-dozen top Justice Department officials their jobs.
"The president and the vice president are not above the law any more than you and I are," Leahy said. "The White House hasn't given us anything. What we have been able to get has been some things, a lot of it erased or blanked out from the Department of Justice."
Fratto, the White House spokesman, said the eavesdropping program was designed as an early-warning system to detect and prevent terrorist attacks by intercepting communications in or out of the U.S. by suspected al-Qaida terrorists. He said intelligence committees in Congress have been consistently briefed on the programs.
"It was safe and effective and saved lives," Fratto said.
Leahy spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press."