WASHINGTON - A House committee plans to subpoena up to seven former and current baseball players - including Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro - to appear at a congressional hearing to confront questions about steroid use that's tarnishing the game's reputation.

The subpoenas are to be issued as early as today by the House Committee on Government Reform, according to a government official familiar with the process. The official said the only way to avoid a subpoena would be to commit to appearing without one.

The March 17 hearing is scheduled to feature Jose Canseco, the one-time slugger who claimed to expose steroid users last month in his new book, testifying with a handful of the ballplayers he has accused of using the performance-enhancing drugs.

Those who could face subpoenas include Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees; Mark McGwire, the retired former single-season home run record-holder; Oriole and former Texas Ranger Palmeiro; Sosa, who was traded to the Orioles during the offseason from the Chicago Cubs; Frank Thomas, the Chicago White Sox slugger; and pitcher Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox.

Not all of the players on the list have been alleged by Canseco - or anyone else - to have used steroids.

Thomas appears to be on the list because of his public statements that the game needs to be cleaned up. He has said he would be happy to testify at the hearing, although he has expressed concern about the effect that flying to Washington from the team's Arizona spring training site could have on an injured ankle.

A 'witch hunt'

Schilling also spoke out against steroids before baseball's program of tougher penalties and year-round testing began during spring training.

He said recently that he was concerned the hearing could turn into a "witch hunt" and that he didn't know if he would voluntarily attend.

Officials said yesterday afternoon that the committee, which had been threatening to issue subpoenas if players declined to appear on their own, decided it would be "cleaner" to compel everyone on the players' list to show up. The committee later modified its position slightly by saying players who agree to testify could avoid a subpoena. But the bottom line is the same. "The committee is intent on hearing from all invited witnesses," said David Marin, a committee spokesman.

Also expected at the hearing - although they may not receive subpoenas - are baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, executive director and general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Canseco's book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, hit stores on Feb. 14. He not only names baseball players he says used steroids, but he also mounts a zealous and controversial defense of the drugs' alleged benefits.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said he wanted a hearing to try to remove the "cloud over baseball" and to warn children about steroids' risks.

Steroid use has been linked to mood swings and depression, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, heart and sexual organs.

The committee may add or delete names from the witness list as the hearing date nears, and it decided yesterday to add a panel of steroid experts and people who have seen the effects of steroid use in their families.

The list includes National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow and Texas resident Donald Hooton, a cousin of former major league pitcher Burt Hooton.

Donald Hooton's 17-year-old son Taylor, who was a high school pitcher, committed suicide in 2003 after using anabolic steroids.

Some names are noticeably absent from the witness list. Among those is Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger who needs 12 homers to pass Babe Ruth for second on the career home run list.

Bonds testified to a grand jury in December 2003 that he used a clear substance and a cream given to him by a trainer who was indicted in a steroid-distribution ring, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, he said he didn't know if they were steroids.

Asked why Bonds is not being called to testify, Marin, the committee spokesman, replied: "The committee has invited a broad cross-section of players with information to share on the subject and who will best contribute to a constructive discussion on the issue."

Flexing its power

Congress has the power to subpoena witnesses and require them to testify under oath. Witnesses are permitted to exercise their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Some players have privately raised concerns about seemingly being called to testify based on the book's allegations.

The hearing is likely to bring together players "who fundamentally don't want to be in the same room together," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "It's one thing to have to be tied together in the press, but it's another to have their picture on the front page," Swangard said.

The Major League Baseball Players Association declined to comment about the hearing, said spokesman Greg Bouris.

However, some players had been wavering about whether to attend. Palmeiro said recently that he didn't have much to say. Sosa said he wanted to consult with his agent before commenting.