WASHINGTON—For weeks the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have been stealing Rep. Henry Waxman's thunder with their investigations into the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
But the 17-term California Democrat who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reclaimed his spot Wednesday as the lawmaker with the greatest leverage to make the Bush administration squirm.
As Republicans protested, Waxman's panel cast a party-line vote to subpoena Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify on prewar intelligence. Waxman said the highly unusual step was necessary because Rice won't appear voluntarily. "The secretary of state is giving us no choice," he said.
The panel's Democratic majority also voted to compel the Republican National Committee to provide documents and testimony about the possible use of RNC e-mail accounts by administration officials to skirt compliance with the Presidential Records Act, which requires all official government e-mail records to be preserved. The investigation also will examine the possible improper use of government agency resources for election purposes.
Waxman had planned votes Wednesday for subpoenas on two more fronts, but he delayed them, saying the White House appeared to be taking last-minute steps to comply voluntarily.
One of those subpoenas would have compelled testimony from former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in connection with investigations into White House security and the leak of a CIA officer's identity. The second subpoena would have sought information about dealings between the White House and a federal contractor who's at the center of bribery cases.
With the Democrats back in control of Congress after a dozen years, Waxman threatened more subpoenas if the administration balks. He said subpoenas should be a last resort, but "if we are stonewalled, we can't hesitate to use the power we have."
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the panel's top Republican, criticized Waxman's plans to question Rice as "somewhere between unworthy and abusive." In general, Davis said, Waxman is "substituting quantity for quality by bundling a number of old issues and grievances in an effort to get high-profile administration figures under oath before the cameras for the sake of political theatrics."
Davis admonished Waxman: "Slow down and take a longer view."
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., noted, as did an incredulous Rice spokesman later in the day, that the secretary of state already has testified before other committees about what she knew leading up to the Iraq war.
Shays predicted a backlash against Democrats comparable to what Republicans suffered when they impeached President Clinton.
Once Rice testifies, "then what? Then are you going to impeach her?" Shays challenged Waxman, his voice rising. "Is that what's going to help us win the war in Iraq or help us get our troops home!
"The same thing will happen to you that happened to us," Shays predicted. "The American people will say, `I'm fed up with this.' And they're going to vote you out of office just like they voted us out of office."
Such protests seemed to only harden Waxman's resolve.
He told the panel that from 1997 to 2002, former panel Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., issued 1,052 subpoenas to President Clinton's administration and to other Democrats.
Davis, who immediately preceded Waxman, issued five subpoenas to the Bush administration. "This committee has lived at two extremes, and neither has served the public well," Waxman said.
At 67, Waxman, who represents an affluent, liberal swath of western Los Angeles County, has spent half his life in Congress.
A short man whose bushy eyebrows and upturned nose highlight a face that seems to perpetually question and mock, he's easily caricatured as a bulldog. Critics say partisanship clouds his judgment. Fans consider him a crusader for consumer safety and open government.
As chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health from 1979 to 1994, Waxman led high-profile hearings into the tobacco industry and pushed clean-air, clean-water and food-labeling legislation.
But his leadership now of the oversight panel gives him a broader, nearly limitless reach.
With a staff of more than 20 investigators, Waxman has probes under way into Iraq reconstruction and homeland security contracts, pharmaceutical pricing, political interference in climate-change science and misleading reports from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He's scheduled a hearing that will examine the Food and Drug Administration for next week.
"We have a lot of investigations going on," Waxman said.
WAXMAN ON A ROLL
How can one member of Congress running only one committee besiege the presidency on so many fronts?
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., gets his powers from the rules of the House of Representatives. His committee is the House's chief investigative panel.
It has a mandate to investigate virtually anything that government does or could regulate, and his writ covers not only the actions of federal agencies, but also can extend to private-sector entities such the tobacco industry or Major League Baseball.
"We have very, very broad oversight and investigative authority," Waxman said Wednesday. "We can look at subjects that may warrant legislation, we can look at how laws are being enforced, we can look to see whether we need to change the laws. So it certainly is very broad."
Waxman also holds singular subpoena power to force people to dance to his tune. While the heads of other legislative panels need majority-vote authorization to issue subpoenas, Waxman can do so unilaterally. He's been holding subpoena votes among his panel's members anyway, to include them.
"I've tried to be restrained," he said. "I've tried to be reasonable."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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