WASHINGTON — A powerful Republican senator said Tuesday that if the Bush administration wouldn't appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, Congress should consider starting contempt proceedings on its own against the White House.
The proposal from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, ratchets up a seven-month standoff between the White House and Congress over whether former and current White House officials should be compelled to testify or provide documents related to the firings.
The White House has refused to cooperate with congressional probes and has blocked testimony from several former and current White House aides. Last week, administration officials announced that they intend to prohibit the Justice Department from initiating any congressional effort to hold executive-branch officials in contempt of Congress.
Specter's stand Tuesday suggests that some in Congress may see the White House stance as an institutional insult to their coequal branch of government under the Constitution. If Specter's recommendation prevails, lawmakers of both parties could join in opposing the White House rather than Republicans siding reflexively with President Bush, as they often do in legislative clashes with Democrats.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he can't appoint a special prosecutor because of his role in the prosecutors' firings, but that U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement could do so.
Specter said that if Clement didn't act, Congress could initiate contempt proceedings on its own authority. Under that scenario, the Senate Judiciary Committee could initiate a congressional trial to determine whether White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, former White House counsel Harriet Miers or others should be found in contempt for refusing to testify or turn over documents.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to pursue criminal contempt charges over the same issues Wednesday.
In an interview, Specter played down any inference that he was seeking a dramatic constitutional clash.
"We're not going to go for any spectacles," he said. "We want to have a mature, civil adjudication."
Two other Republicans on the Judiciary panel, Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Jon Kyl of Arizona, signaled that they aren't inclined to support contempt proceedings as envisioned by Specter. Instead, they suggested that Congress could ask the courts to rule on the legitimacy of the president's executive-privilege claim.
"I don't think we should try to unilaterally figure out a way to just go to war with the White House over it," Sessions said. "At some point if the president resists, ultimately that should go to the court and the court decides."
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., agreed: "The courts will make that decision. Let them decide."
Asked how the question would get before the courts, given the Bush administration's posture, Lott said: "I want to talk to Senator Specter about it." Kyl said he did too.
On many controversies discussed Tuesday, Gonzales' explanations did little to appease his critics.
"Seems to me that it is just decimating, Mr. Attorney General, as to both your judgment and your credibility," Specter said at one point.
"This administration has squandered our trust," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "I am not willing to accept a simple statement of `Trust us.' I don't trust you."
Gonzales tried to deflect scathing criticism of his attempts as White House counsel to convince former Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve a warrantless wiretap program despite internal opposition to it. In May, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had pressured Ashcroft in March 2004 to reauthorize the program as Ashcroft lay gravely ill in a hospital bed.
Comey said the Bush administration ran the program without the Justice Department's approval for up to three weeks in 2004, nearly triggering a mass resignation of the nation's top law enforcement officials.
Gonzales said the hospital visit had taken place only after the so-called "Gang of Eight" top congressional and intelligence committee leaders from both parties had told him to proceed with the program despite Comey's opposition.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he didn't recall the Gang of Eight meeting as Gonzales described it.
"I think he was untruthful," Rockefeller said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers.