WASHINGTON -- House Democrats began laying the groundwork for finding former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers in contempt of Congress yesterday when, as expected, she did not appear at a congressional hearing on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
In a party-line vote, a House judiciary subcommittee dismissed claims of executive privilege that Miers invoked through her lawyer in refusing to appear. The 7-5 vote was the first step in a process that could lead to Miers - who had been briefly nominated for the Supreme Court in 2005 - being found in contempt, although the timing of such a move was far from clear.
"I can't fathom a private citizen getting a subpoena to come before this body and not showing up," said Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat. "What we've got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be of the government, of the process, of the country."
Miers' absence from the Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee came a day after former White House political affairs director Sara M. Taylor, subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, answered some questions before that panel about the case of the fired prosecutors.
Both Miers and Taylor were under orders from the White House to decline to answer questions on grounds of executive privilege. White House counsel Fred Fielding advised Miers on Tuesday that, despite receiving a subpoena, she need not attend the hearing in person to assert the privilege.
Democrats have taken up the cause of the fired prosecutors - all of whom were appointed by Bush - because of concerns that they were replaced to make way for attorneys who would better serve Republican interests. U.S. attorneys, the Justice Department's top representatives in each state, are expected to enforce federal laws without regard to political loyalties.
Republicans in Congress have countered that Bush has the right to fire U.S. attorneys for any reason and that the months-long investigation has turned up no hard evidence of criminal misconduct.
Miers' empty chair yesterday prompted sometimes-rancorous exchanges among committee members. Democrats accused the administration of stonewalling in a way that had not been seen on Capitol Hill since the Watergate era.
"Nixon ... famously argued that ... 'Everything the president does is legal,'" said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, who had been a Judiciary Committee staffer during the Nixon impeachment inquiry. "It appears that this administration is apparently adding, 'Everything the president, his advisers and his former advisers say or do is privileged.' That is not the state of law."
The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican, accused the majority of orchestrating "a gigantic spin game frittering away the precious time of this 110th Congress."
The White House has offered up Miers and a few other officials for interviews on the condition that they be conducted in private, without an oath, transcript or opportunity for follow-up questions. Democrats have said those conditions are unacceptable.
Calling the subpoena for Miers premature, Cannon said the majority was making a mistake by declining to interview her on the terms set by the White House.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.