The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Thursday to hold two men who have been top aides to President George W. Bush in contempt for refusing to comply with subpoenas in its probe of the firing of federal prosecutors.
On a largely party-line vote, the Democratic-led panel sent contempt of Congress citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to the full Senate for consideration.
“This is not a step I have wanted to take,” said Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. He accused the White House of “stonewalling” and refusing to reach an acceptable compromise on providing documents and testimony.
In a battle dating back to shortly after Democrats took control of Congress in January, Bush has claimed executive privilege to protect aides from complying with subpoenas demanding documents and testimony in a congressional probe into the firing last year of nine federal prosecutors.
Setting the stage for a possible lengthy court fight, the committee rejected the privilege claim as unfounded.
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said, “The Democrats should know the futility of trying to press ahead with a criminal case.”
In July, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee also approved along party lines contempt citations against Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.
It was unclear when the full House or Senate would vote on the citations. If approved, they would be sent to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey said during his confirmation hearing he did not believe the department could prosecute since it had deemed Bush’s privilege claim as valid.
If the case does end up in the courts, it could takes years to conclude, long after Bush’s term ends in January 2009.
Bush nominated Mukasey as attorney general after Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s former White House counsel, resigned under pressure from lawmakers who questioned his competency and honesty.
Critics charged Gonzales had politicized the Justice Department and fired prosecutors because they were not seen as sufficiently loyal to the administration.
The White House has contended the dismissals were improperly handled, but did not involve any wrongdoing.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky)