Washington The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to issue contempt citations for two of President Bush's closest aides, moving nearer to a constitutional confrontation with the White House over access to information about the Justice Department's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.
The panel voted 22 to 17, along party lines, to issue citations to Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff, and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel. Both refused to comply with committee subpoenas after Bush declared that documents and testimony related to the prosecutor firings are protected by executive privilege.
"If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up ... then we have already lost," committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said. "We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee or any other."
The vote represents the first concrete step toward finding Bolten and Miers in criminal contempt of Congress. The issue will next be considered by the entire House, and if a similar vote occurs there, the citations could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. But a floor vote appears unlikely before the end of next week, when the House begins a 5-week summer break.
Contempt of Congress is a federal misdemeanor, punishable by as much as one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Previous contempt votes against officials in other administrations were settled by compromise, but officials on both sides have warned that resolution may be elusive in this dispute.
An aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., confirmed a floor vote is unlikely until after Labor Day, giving Congress and White House counsel Fred Fielding another month-and-a-half to negotiate a settlement of the legal standoff.
The Bush administration has said that it will block the prosecution of any contempt charges. A presidentially appointed U.S. attorney, they said, cannot flout a president's determination that the materials and testimony sought are protected.