By Caitlin Webber
The House on Thursday voted to cite the White House chief of staff and a former counsel for contempt of Congress for defying subpoenas from the Judiciary Committee.
By 223-32, with one member voting present, the House approved a self-executing rule (H Res 982) that adopted two resolutions setting up a constitutional clash between President Bush and congressional Democrats.
The first resolution (H Res 979) cited White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with House Judiciary Committee subpoenas pertaining to the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
Federal law requires the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to take the matter before a grand jury. But Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey told the committee last week that he would not allow that to happen. Mukasey argues that executive branch officials cannot be prosecuted for respecting Bush’s executive privilege claim.
House Democrats sought to counter Mukasey with the second resolution (H Res 980), which empowers the panel to “initiate or intervene in judicial proceedings” in federal court to enforce its subpoenas.
“If the House Democrats try to bring a civil case in federal court, they will be met with opposition at the courthouse door and at every step of the way,” the White House later said in a statement.
Just before the vote, Republicans walked out of the chamber to protest the lack of action on long-term legislation (HR 3773) to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA, PL 95-511).
Lamar Smith of Texas, Judiciary’s ranking Republican, said, “Today, we find ourselves at two very dangerous thresholds. The House Democratic majority has let [FISA] legislation lapse without even allowing a straight up-or-down vote on the bipartisan Senate bill approved earlier this week. . . . Instead, the Democratic majority chooses to take us to another threshold – that of a needless constitutional confrontation in the courts over the dismissal of a handful of U.S. attorneys.”
David Dreier of California, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, blasted the procedure used to bring the contempt resolution to the floor, saying, “Never before in the history of the republic has there been such a rule. [It] actually undermines the deliberative nature of the people’s House. . . . We are saying that there will be no debate whatsoever, no debate whatsoever on these very important two contempt resolutions.”
Democrats stressed the time that has lapsed since the contempt citations were approved in committee last July.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., said, “I had hoped, frankly, that this day would never have come, that the respectful negotiations that should take place between Article 1, the legislative branch, and Article 2, the executive branch, would have yielded the is congressional oversight that is essential to the well-being of the American people.”
Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, “Some may argue that the stakes in this confrontation are so high we cannot afford the risk that we might lose, [but] if we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn’t even bother to show up, where privilege can be asserted on the thinnest of bases and in the broadest possible manner, then we have already lost.”
Pelosi insisted that she would take the same position regarding the subpoenas if a Democrat occupied the White House. ‘If this were a Democratic administration and they acted this way, I would support a contempt resolution,” she said.
“Our point is the separation of powers and congressional oversight,” she told reporters, “and to prevent the abuse of power we believe there has been.”
She said she still hoped a showdown can be avoided, now that Congress has taken its latest step. “We hope the administration will realize Congress is serious about our oversight role and reach a settlement,” she said.