The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to hold two of President George W Bush’s confidants in contempt for failing to co-operate with an inquiry into whether a purge of US prosecutors was politically motivated.
Angry Republicans boycotted the vote and staged a walkout.
The vote was 223-32 on Thursday to hold presidential chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt. The citations charge Miers with failing to testify and accuse her and Bolten of refusing Congress’ demands for documents related to the 2006-2007 firings.
Republicans said Democrats should instead be working on extending a law - set to expire on Saturday - allowing the government to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails in the United States in cases of suspected terrorist activity.
The White House said the Justice Department would not ask the US attorney to pursue the House contempt charges.
It is the first time in 25 years that a full chamber of Congress has voted on a contempt of Congress citation.
The action, which Democrats had been threatening for months, was the latest wrinkle in a more than year-long US constitutional clash between Congress and the White House.
The administration has said the information being sought is off-limits under executive privilege, and argues that Bolten and Miers are immune from prosecution. Administrations from both parties have invoked executive privilege, arguing that White House aides would not give the president the best advice if they knew they might be called before Congress to testify under oath.
Still, the resolution would allow the House to bring its own lawsuit on the matter.
If Congress does not act to enforce the subpoenas, said Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat, it would “be giving its tacit consent to the dangerous idea of an imperial presidency, above the law and beyond the reach of checks and balances”.
Under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Justice Department officials consulted with the White House, fired at least nine federal prosecutors and kindled a political furor over a hiring process that favoured Republican loyalists. Gonzales, a longtime Bush aide and friend, resiged last year in part because of the firings.
Bush’s former top political adviser Karl Rove has also been a target of Congress’ investigation into the purge of prosecutors, although Thursday’s measure was not aimed at him.
Fred Fielding, the current White House counsel, has offered to make officials and documents available behind closed doors to the congressional committees probing the matter - but off the record and not under oath. Lawmakers demanded a transcript of testimony and the negotiations stalled.
Republicans blasted Democrats for scheduling action on the contempt measures instead of moving to extend the eavesdropping law.
“We have space on the calendar today for a politically charged fishing expedition but no space for a bill that would protect the American people from terrorists who want to kill us,” said John A Boehner, the Republican minority leader.
“Let’s just get up and leave,” he told his colleagues, before storming out of the House chamber with scores of Republicans in tow.
“If the House had nothing better to do, this futile partisan act would be a waste of time,” said Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. “The ‘people’s House’ should reflect the priorities of the American people, not the fantasies of left-wing bloggers.”
It is not clear that contempt of Congress citations must be prosecuted. The law says the US attorney “shall” bring the matter to a grand jury.
The House voted 259-105 in 1982 for a contempt citation against EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch, but the Reagan-era Justice Department refused to prosecute the case. (AP)
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