WASHINGTON -- President Bush, setting up a possible constitutional showdown with congressional leaders over the firing of U.S. attorneys, agreed yesterday to make White House political strategist Karl Rove available for questioning on Capitol Hill, but not in public or under oath.
The concessions failed to placate Democrats, who have accused the White House and Justice Department of dismissing eight federal prosecutors for political reasons.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees readied plans to authorize the issuance of subpoenas for Rove and other officials today and tomorrow.
Bush said his staff would oppose the subpoenas, setting the stage for a possible constitutional confrontation.
In a news conference held late yesterday to address the growing dispute over the firings, Bush spoke in sometimes defiant terms, criticizing Democrats for trying to "score political points."
He urged them to accept his offer to have Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers talk to congressional investigators behind closed doors, but not under oath. He also pledged to release all White House documents related to the firings.
"I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse," the president said. "I hope they don't choose confrontation. I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials."
He also firmed up his support for Alberto R. Gonzales amid increasing calls for the attorney general's resignation. "I've got confidence in him," Bush said.
Bush denied that the firings were politically motivated, or that they were attempts to shut down corruption investigations of Republicans or to speed up investigations into possible wrongdoing by Democrats.
"The Justice Department with the approval of the White House believed new leadership in these positions would better serve our country," Bush said, describing the moves as "normal and appropriate."
He acknowledged that the announcement of the decisions and the explanation of the changes had been "confusing and in some cases incomplete," and he promised to "correct the record."
"I'm sorry that the situation has gotten to where it's got," he said. "But that's Washington, D.C., for you. You know, there's a lot of politics in this town."
What Bush called "a reasonable solution to the issue" was derided by Democrats, who vowed to proceed with a plan to issue subpoenas that would compel Rove and the others to answer questions under oath in public.
"We will move forward to authorize subpoenas for current and former White House and Justice officials, as well as documents," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.
The committee "will take whatever steps are necessary and within our congressional authority to get to the bottom of what has become a horrible mess that is undermining American trust in our federal criminal justice system."
Conyers said the committee's Commercial and Administrative Law subcommittee will meet today to authorize subpoenas for the White House officials and former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson to testify in public hearings and to produce documents.
"It is not constructive, and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation, or to prejudge its outcome," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That's the formula for true accountability.
Also yesterday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation that would strip the Justice Department of the authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without congressional oversight.
On Monday, the Justice Department released 3,000 documents offering an unusual inside look into the way the eight prosecutors were pushed from office.
Besides Rove and Miers, who resigned in January, the White House offered to arrange interviews with deputy White House counsel William Kelley and J. Scott Jennings, a deputy White House political director.
White House counsel Fred Fielding said in a letter to congressional leaders that Bush's proposal struck a balance between providing the information that Congress needs and preserving confidences of the president under the doctrine of executive privilege.
Besides making the questioning private and not under oath, he said, the interviews should be permitted only as "a last resort," conducted only after Congress has heard from Justice Department officials about the U.S. attorney situation.
The White House is prepared to offer congressional investigations communications between the White House and the Department of Justice, and communications between White House staff and third parties, including members of Congress or their staffs, on the subject, Fielding said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the offer of documents excludes some of the most relevant information, including communications solely among White House personnel.
"This is giving us the opportunity to talk to them but not giving us the opportunity to get to the bottom of what really happened here," Schumer said. "It is a clever proposal."
"We obviously will present a counteroffer to them that will be far more complete and far more extensive. We will move forward with the subpoenas on Thursday. Mr. Fielding indicated that he did not want to negotiate, but that does not mean we are not going to try."
Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano write for the Los Angeles Times