washington -- The House Judiciary Committee said yesterday that it would go ahead with contempt of Congress proceedings against President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers over their refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas pertaining to the investigation of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
The panel's chairman, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, said the committee would vote tomorrow on a resolution to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for refusing to turn over documents and provide testimony sought by the panel in the politically charged case.
The decision heats up a battle between Congress and the White House in which the Bush administration has sought to invoke executive privilege to keep documents about the firings under wraps. The resolution will go to the House floor for a vote if, as expected, the committee approves it.
Only twice since the Watergate investigations of the mid-1970s has the full House voted to hold an administration official in contempt of Congress.
"This investigation, including the reluctant but necessary decision to move forward with contempt, has been a very deliberative process, taking care at each step to respect the executive branch's legitimate prerogatives," Conyers said.
"I've allowed the White House and Ms. Miers every opportunity to cooperate with this investigation, either voluntarily or under subpoena. It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter."
Democrats have seized on the dismissals of the U.S. attorneys, all appointed by Bush, because of evidence that some were removed because they were not pursuing cases that would further Republican Party goals. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is expected to be questioned about his role in the dismissals in an appearance today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales has been criticized for giving what lawmakers considered to be conflicting explanations about the extent of his involvement in the firings. He is also facing questions about a conversation he had with a former top aide, Monica Goodling, who said he attempted to discuss the firings with her before she was questioned by congressional investigators.
In his prepared testimony for the hearing, distributed yesterday by the Justice Department, Gonzales, whose tenure once seemed imperiled by the controversy, said he remains troubled by the allegations of politicization at the department. He vowed to stay at the department to "fix the problems."
Congressional investigators have reviewed thousands of pages of Justice Department documents and testimony, but the White House has declined to make officials available for public questioning under oath.
The administration has offered to make some officials available for private questioning without a transcript and without the opportunity for follow-up questions. Lawmakers have said those conditions are unacceptable.
"It seems now that we have a fishing expedition that's woefully short on fish," White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday. "This is one of these things where Congress can get its facts and do its due diligence without having to get to this point, and we continue to hold open the possibility of accommodation."
Under federal law, contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor. Cases are referred to the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia for prosecution. The penalty is one to 12 months in jail and $100 to $1,000 in fines.
Snow repeated yesterday that the administration would probably attempt to block any effort to prosecute Miers or Bolten. The White House has cited Justice Department legal opinions that the law does not allow criminal proceedings against administration officials who assert executive privilege when refusing to answers lawmakers' questions.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.