Bush, Congress continue warring over executive privilege


WASHINGTON – The legal sabre-rattling over executive privilege drowns out a key irony in the standoff between President Bush and Congress over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

If the Democrats in Congress make good on their threat to pass contempt citations against Bush’s former aides for defying their subpoenas, the next step would be a criminal referral – to Jeff Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and Bush appointee.

“On a case like this, does anyone believe the U.S. attorney is going to bring a criminal contempt citation against anyone?” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked Monday in a telephone interview. “The U.S. attorney works for the president and it’s a discretionary matter what the U.S. attorney does.”

Later, on the Senate floor, Specter said, “I can see how a U.S. attorney might not want to spend a whole lot of time on this matter.” He complained that the racket is a waste of Congress’ time and the public’s money and is a distraction from the question of whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should continue to lead a Justice Department hobbled by controversy.

Specter was pointing out what most lawmakers and presidents caught in executive privilege fights have concluded: A resolution is preferable to a court battle that might curb the powers of either side, or both.

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But a deal appeared elusive. Gonzales, who has denied wrongdoing, remains in office with Bush’s unwavering support.

The subpoenaed White House aides – former presidential counsel Harriet Miers and Bush’s one-time political director, Sara Taylor – remain squeezed between the president’s instruction not to testify and the prospect of being held in contempt of Congress. Their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

Leahy said he expects Taylor to appear before his panel on Wednesday, as scheduled. It was unclear if Miers would appear before Rep. John Conyers’ committee the next day. The last contempt finding that Congress sought was against former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle in 1983. Historically, such standoffs over executive privilege are resolved before the full House or Senate votes on referring a congressional contempt citation to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.