White House, US Congress near constitutional showdown over fired prosecutors

Senate Democrats are pressing their campaign to have White House political guru Karl Rove, under oath and under the glare of television lights, fielding questions before a congressional committee on the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.

Subpoenas for Rove and other top White House aides were expected to be authorized Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. A House panel took similar action Wednesday, but held off issuing the subpoenas.

Facing a potential constitutional showdown, the White House showed no inclination to compromise, saying Bush would only allow his aides to hold limited private interviews with certain lawmakers without being sworn.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow threatened Wednesday to rescind that proposal, which he called Bush's final offer.

"If they issue subpoenas, yes, the offer is withdrawn," Snow said. Democrats "will have rejected the offer."

The dispute over the prosecutors has become the latest clash between Bush's Republican Party and the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress. Democrats, who have long accused Republicans of running roughshod over opponents, have portrayed the firings as part of a campaign of intimidation and obstruction by the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers.

Even as both sides dug in publicly, prominent lawmakers worked behind the scenes to avert a court battle between the executive and legislative branches.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel's senior Republican, said he was considering backing Democrats' move to authorize subpoenas, but was also working to cut a deal with the White House to avoid having to issue them.

Bush is standing by embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, even as Republicans and Democrats question his leadership. The president insists that the firings of the prosecutors over the past year were appropriate, while Democrats argue they were politically motivated.

In offering up his aides to talk to the committees behind closed doors, Snow said Bush was seeking to avoid the "media spectacle" that would result from public hearings.

Democrats have rejected Bush's offer - relayed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday by White House counsel Fred Fielding - in large part because there would be no transcript and the testimony would not be public.

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, said it would be "outrageous," to allow Rove to testify off the record.

"Anyone who would take that deal isn't playing with a full deck," Reid said.

Reid added that Gonzales "is history. He can't survive."

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 House Republican, stopped short of calling for Gonzales' ouster, but said the prosecutors flap and recent revelations about the FBI's rampant misuse of its spying powers are threatening to distract him from his job.

Gonzales "has to evaluate how effectively he can continue to serve as our attorney general," Putnam said. "He is standing in the middle of a tornado, largely of his own making."

Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, meanwhile, said Gonzales had lied to him when he said he planned to seek confirmation for a prosecutor named to replace the fired Arkansas U.S. attorney. Pryor already has asked for Gonzales' resignation, as have three Republican lawmakers.

Gonzales has been on the defensive for his handling of the prosecutor firings and a shifting series of explanations that followed. In an apparent attempt to mend fences, he arranged a series of meetings in the coming days with groups of U.S. attorneys around the country, beginning Thursday in St. Louis.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law agreed Wednesday to compel the top White House aides to testify.

"There must be accountability," said subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, a Democrat.

The double-barreled House and Senate actions do not guarantee an impasse, however.

With authorizations in hand, the Democratic chairmen of the Judiciary panels, Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Patrick Leahy, can issue subpoenas at any time, but they have not done so yet.

They also could continue to negotiate with the White House, with the threat of subpoenas as a bargaining chip, the AP said.

Bush has remained resolute. He said Tuesday he would "absolutely" go to court to protect his aides against being called to Capitol Hill to testify under oath in public. Such testimony would set a harmful precedent on the separation of powers that would damage the institution of the presidency, Bush said.

The dispute could end up in court - ultimately the Supreme Court.

Bush also defended Gonzales against demands for his resignation. "I support the attorney general," the president said.

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