Washington A defiant President Bush warned Democrats Tuesday to accept his offer to have top aides speak about the firings of federal prosecutors only privately and not under oath, or risk a constitutional showdown from which he would not back down.
Democrats' response was swift and firm: They said they would start authorizing subpoenas as soon as today for the White House aides.
"Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That's the formula for true accountability," said Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bush, in a late-afternoon statement at the White House, said he would fight any subpoena effort in court.
"We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," he said. "It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available."
He added that federal prosecutors work for him and it is natural to consider replacing them. While saying he disapproved of how the decisions were explained to Congress, he insisted "there is no indication that anybody did anything improper."
Bush gave his embattled attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, a boost during an early morning call and ended the day with a public statement repeating it. "He's got support with me," Bush said.
The Senate, meanwhile, voted to strip Gonzales of his authority to fill U.S. attorney vacancies without Senate confirmation. Democrats contend the Justice Department and White House purged eight federal prosecutors, some of whom were leading political corruption investigations, after a change in the Patriot Act gave Gonzales the new authority.
Bush said his White House counsel, Fred Fielding, told lawmakers they could interview presidential counselor Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies - but only on the president's terms: in private, "without the need for an oath" and without a transcript.