WASHINGTON — Demonstrating that a constitutional battle between Congress and the White House is far from over, the House Judiciary Committee took legal action Monday to try to compel presidential chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to provide information about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
The committee's filing of a lawsuit in Washington federal court comes after Democratic-led congressional hearings probed the firings, the Justice Department released thousands of internal e-mails and documents and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned.
Democrats say they've been forced to sue more than a year after they launched the probe because the administration refuses to allow Miers and Bolten to provide crucial information that would shed light on the reason for the firings.
The administration has denied any wrongdoing, and maintains that Congress has no compelling interest to see internal White House deliberations on the matter.
Congress' investigation into the firings of the U.S. attorneys produced suspicions but no proof that the prosecutors were targeted because they'd rebuffed Republican demands that they bring weak voter-fraud cases against Democrats or because they'd mounted corruption investigations of Republicans.
The lawsuit accuses administration officials of injecting partisan considerations into the firing decisions and making "questionable or outright false statements" in subsequent explanations to Congress.
Last month, the House of Representatives voted mostly along party lines to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt and authorized the Judiciary Committee to ask a court to order them to testify if the Justice Department failed to issue criminal contempt citations. It marked the first time in 25 years that a full chamber of Congress voted for contempt.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey said late last month that the Justice Department wouldn't act, because the pair's refusal to testify didn't constitute a crime.
Democrats had said they'd hoped to cut a deal with the White House to avoid the courts' intervention. However, the lawsuit says Congress can't complete its investigation "because of the absence of any credible explanation for the forced resignations and because of the unexplained involvement" of Miers and other White House officials.
"We will not allow the administration to steamroll Congress," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said Monday.
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, called the House's latest move "partisan theater" and criticized members of Congress for ignoring the White House's offer to allow the pair to be questioned behind closed doors but not under oath.
"The confidentiality that the president receives from his senior advisers and the constitutional principle of separation of powers must be protected from overreaching," Perino said.
Experts predict that the House's lawyers face an uphill legal battle. In 1983, when the executive branch sued the House to try to pre-empt a criminal contempt case involving the Environmental Protection Agency, the court kicked the conflict back to the executive and legislative branches to work out, and a compromise was reached.
The Justice Department, citing briefs from the Reagan and Clinton administrations, has said it doesn't think that the contempt law applies to executive branch employees acting on what they believe to be legitimate orders from the president.
The lawsuit was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge John Bates, a former longtime U.S. attorney in Washington and former deputy counsel in the investigation of the Clintons' investments in the Whitewater land development.