WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to begin criminal contempt proceedings against two White House advisers who refused to comply with subpoenas in Congress' investigation into the firings last year of nine U.S. attorneys.
The Bush administration said it will block the effort, but Democrats pressed ahead, calling it a necessary step in a growing confrontation that ultimately may be decided in the courts.
The 22-17 vote along party lines advances a resolution to pursue contempt of Congress charges against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
Bolten refused to turn over documents and Miers declined to appear before Congress to answer questions after President Bush invoked executive privilege and asked aides not to share their communications with lawmakers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the panel's vote "part of a broader effort by House Democrats to restore our nation's fundamental system of checks and balances" after "mismanagement of our Iraq policy, widespread corruption by contractors such as Halliburton and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina" under a Republican-led Congress.
"For our view, this is pathetic," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow."What you have right now is partisanship on Capitol Hill that quite often boils down to insults, insinuations, inquisitions and investigations, rather than pursuing the normal business of trying to pass major pieces of legislation..."
Wednesday's vote followed two hours of sparring between committee Democrats and Republicans accusing one another of hypocrisy and shortsightedness.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel's top Republican, said President Clinton invoked executive privilege 14 times, "primarily to shield his own personal misdeeds and to shield his wife," now-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
"The majority knows that it would leap to the barricades of executive privilege if a Democrat were in the White House," Smith charged, "just as it did when the Clintons were there, bobbing and weaving in Whitewater, around Paula Jones and away from Monica Lewinsky, trying to sweep it all under the rug."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Republicans were protecting Bush at the expense of their own interests as legislators. "I guarantee you that you'll rue the day you sat on your hands and we allowed an administration to walk over us, as it has attempted to do."
The House of Representatives must next vote on the matter, but it's not expected to happen before September.
The Bush administration has said that neither chamber of Congress can force the Justice Department to prosecute White House aides who are acting on a president's executive privilege assertions.
That raises big questions of how the House might enforce any contempt citation, which is why the question may end up in court.
The White House has asserted that a president's right to receive unfettered advice from his inner circle outweighs Congress' right to seek details about an executive branch matter.
In a letter to lawmakers released Wednesday, Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, wrote that "we believe that the contempt of Congress statute was not intended to apply and could not constitutionally be applied to an Executive Branch official who asserts the president's claim of executive privilege in this context."
U.S. attorneys serve at the president's pleasure, and the administration has maintained that nothing was improper about the removals. Democrats, citing Congress' oversight role, have been investigating whether the dismissals were connected to prosecutors' refusals to pursue voter-fraud cases sought by GOP activists or to their investigations of high-profile Republicans.
The Justice Department hasn't been able to answer basic questions about who decided to fire which prosecutors and why.
Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said he recognizes the downside of Congress pushing a criminal contempt case and losing. "Some may argue that the stakes in this confrontation are so high we cannot afford the risk that we might lose," he said. "I would say to them that if we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored . . . we have already lost."
Several Republicans said Democrats were on a witch hunt without evidence of wrongdoing and urged Conyers to drop the contempt fight and seek court review of the executive privilege claims.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., called the contempt vote "an unnecessary provocation of a constitutional crisis." Losing that fight in court "is going to be viewed as a blank check by the present president and future presidents to do whatever they want."
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said if Congress loses a showdown, it would create a "much stronger, more imperial" presidency.
(Marisa Taylor contributed.)