Washington Congressional investigators told the White House on Wednesday they would sue to make officials reveal who met with President Bush's energy task force but would first give him a chance to review his decision not to surrender the information.
Bush has refused to hand over documents from Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, saying to do so would encroach on his ability to seek outside views.
The group last year had meetings with business executives including some from the now-collapsed Enron Corp., a Houston-based energy trader with ties to Bush as the administration crafted a national energy policy.
The General Accounting Office, the House and Senate's investigative unit, says Congress has a right to the information. Comptroller General David Walker, who leads the GAO, told The Associated Press the lawsuit would be filed in two or three weeks.
"I'd rather get it right than get it quick," Walker said.
That will also give the White House time to review its position, he said.
"This is not something I sought," said Walker, former assistant labor secretary in the Reagan administration and a trustee of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds in the first Bush administration. "I've got a job to do, and I need to do my job."
White House officials said Bush would not back down.
"The president will stand strong on principle, fighting for his right and the right of all future presidents to receive advice without it being turned into a virtual news release," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "The president will fight for this right in a court of law. And the White House expects to prevail because our case is strong, our policy is sound and principle is on our side."
"We obviously strongly disagree," Walker said.
An outside law firm will probably be used for the lawsuit, GAO officials said. The specifics of who would be named in the lawsuit were not yet available.
In a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, Walker said oversight of energy policy and the investigation of Enron-related matters were "important institutional prerogatives" of Congress.
Also, the GAO's historic power to investigate government agencies would be significantly undercut if it didn't pursue legal action.
"Any administration seeking to insulate its activities from oversight and public scrutiny could do so simply by assigning those activities to the vice president or a body under the White House's direct control," Walker wrote in the letter, which was sent to Bush, Cheney and 11 other congressional leaders and committees.
The lawsuit would be the first in the General Accounting Office's 80-year history against a government official or federal agency to get information wanted by Congress. It would be filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Democrats cheered the announcement Wednesday.
"I applaud GAO for standing up for the principles of the right of Congress and the people to know who helped shape the administration's energy policy," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who with Waxman initiated the GAO investigation last April.
Since then, four Senate committees also have asked the GAO to obtain the task force's records.
'Get it out in the open'
There were mixed reactions from Republicans. "It is the height of hypocrisy for Congress to demand information it would never turn over itself," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.
But Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., advised the White House to turn over the documents. "Let's just get it out in the open. Give people the information and then move on," said Ose, who has been a prominent Republican voice on California's energy problems.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced Wednesday it will have an Enron-related hearing next week, making it the 12th congressional panel to begin an investigation into the energy conglomerate since it declared bankruptcy in December.
The White House also said Kenneth Lay, then chairman of Enron, gave Cheney a three-page document in April arguing for federal authorities to refrain from imposing price caps or other measures sought by California officials to stabilize electricity prices.
Cheney spokeswoman Mary Matalin dismissed the significance of the memo, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. Nine of Lay's 11 suggestions were not included in the White House energy plan and the two that made the report were noncontroversial, she said.