Washington — Washington -- Congress called a timeout yesterday in its confrontation with the Bush administration after a Senate committee voted to authorize subpoenas to compel White House officials, including White House political adviser Karl Rove, to testify about why eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year.
Democrats said the voice vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, after a similar move by a House subcommittee a day earlier, would strengthen their hand as they seek more information from the White House about the dismissals, which critics say were politically motivated.
But members of Congress said they would not issue any subpoenas for at least a week, which would allow time for negotiations in what had become a rapidly escalating constitutional confrontation.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary panel, said he would wait at least until Thursday to make a decision on subpoenas.
"Let's not rush into this," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, noting that the Senate will adjourn next week for a spring recess. "When we get back from our break, a decision will have to be made" on whether to issue subpoenas to Rove and others.
The decision to move more slowly will permit the two sides to begin private conversations that could lead to a deal. Such talks began yesterday afternoon when the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, spoke to White House counsel Fred Fielding on the phone.
Specter said he proposed that interviews with Rove and others take place in public and be transcribed but that they would not need to be under oath and that the number of questioners could be limited.
Fielding "said that he had no authorization to negotiate but that he would take my suggestion to the president," Specter said afterward.
Fielding said Tuesday that Rove, former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and others would agree to be interviewed, but only in private, and with no transcripts or recordings, and without taking an oath, by a limited number of members of Congress.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday that "Fred Fielding listened with an open ear," but she did not respond to Specter's proposal.
Leahy expressed exasperation with the White House, saying that the Fielding offer amounted to "nothing, nothing, nothing." But he added that he has invited Kyle Sampson, a former Justice Department official who is accused of leading the charge against some of the attorneys, to testify before the Judiciary Committee Thursday and that he would not issue subpoenas before then.
"I assume he'll accept our invitation," Leahy said. "It's an invitation at this point, not a subpoena."
The White House sent mixed signals. Spokesman Tony Snow did not back down from comments earlier in the week. He said White House officials would not negotiate but that "the phone lines are still open."
"I think one of the things you need to look for in the next couple of days ... is let people think this through. This is not something that's going to be decided overnight," Snow said.
The cooling of rhetoric on both sides seemed to reflect a political calculation on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that both sides could be damaged if the confrontation proceeded further and landed in court.
Courts have rarely intervened in such disputes between the legislative and executive branches of governments, and Democrats acknowledge that a legal battle could extend beyond the 22 months remaining in President Bush's term in office.
Democrats are also concerned that the dispute could backfire and is drowning out other issues that work to their advantage, such as ending the Iraq war. "We don't want to overreach," a senior Senate Democratic aide said.
The White House might recognize that its hand is not as strong as it would like. Recent court cases have not fully endorsed the administration's expansive view of presidential power, and President Bush has been weakened by Republican losses in November's elections and the public restlessness over the war in Iraq.
Moreover, the White House in general and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in particular appeared to be losing support from some Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Former Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, voted with the Democrats in favor of subpoena power and made a point of noting his vote in the record.
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.