WASHINGTON - A House panel on Wednesday approved subpoenas for President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove and other top White House aides, setting up a constitutional showdown over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
By voice vote, the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law decided to compel the president's top aides to testify publicly and under oath about their roles in the firings.
The White House has refused to budge in the controversy, standing by embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and insisting that the firings were appropriate. White House spokesman Tony Snow said that in offering aides to talk to the committees privately, Bush had sought to avoid the "media spectacle" that would result from public hearings with Rove and others at the witness table.
"The question they've got to ask themselves is, are you more interested in a political spectacle than getting the truth?" Snow said of the overture Tuesday that was relayed to Capitol Hill by White House counsel Fred Fielding.
Publicly, the White House held out hope there would be no impasse.
"If they issue subpoenas, yes, the offer is withdrawn," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "They will have rejected the offer."
He added that the offer for interviews on the president's terms - not under oath, on the record or in public - is final.
Democrats dismissed the overture, in large part because there would be no transcript.
"There must be accountability," countered subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a vote Thursday on its own set of subpoenas, with Democrats complaining that the threat of force is the only way to get a straight answer from the White House.
"The White House is in a bunker mentality - won't listen, won't change," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I believe there is even more to come out, and I think it's our duty to bring it out."
The House subcommittee Wednesday approved, but has not issued, subpoenas for Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, their deputies and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, who resigned over the uproar last week.
The panel also voted to compel the production of documents related to the firings from those officials and Gonzales, Fielding and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolton. Fielding a day earlier refused to provide Congress internal White House communications on the subject.
With the authorization in hand, Chairman John Conyers of Michigan could issue them at any time.
Authorizing the subpoenas "does provide this body the leverage needed to negotiate from a position of strength," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
Republicans called the authorization premature, though some GOP members said they would consider voting to approve the subpoenas if Conyers promises to issue them only if he has evidence of wrongdoing.
Conyers agreed. "This (authority) will not be used in a way that will make you regret your vote."
Several Republicans said, "No" during the voice vote, but no roll call was taken.
For his part, Bush remained resolute.
Would he fight Democrats in court to protect his aides against congressional subpoenas?
"Absolutely," Bush declared.
Bush said Tuesday he worried that allowing testimony under oath would set a precedent on the separation of powers that would harm the presidency as an institution.
If neither side blinks, the dispute could end up in court - ultimately the Supreme Court - in a politically messy development that would prolong what Bush called the "public spectacle" of the Justice Department's firings, and public trashings, of the eight U.S. attorneys.
Bush defended Gonzales against demands from congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans that Gonzales resign. "He's got support with me," Bush said. "I support the attorney general."
Democrats say the prosecutors' dismissals were politically motivated. Gonzales initially had asserted the firings were performance-related, not based on political considerations.
But e-mails released earlier this month between the Justice Department and the White House contradicted that assertion and led to a public apology from Gonzales over the handling of the matter.
The e-mails showed that Rove, as early as Jan. 6, 2005, questioned whether the U.S. attorneys should all be replaced at the start of Bush's second term, and to some degree worked with Miers and Sampson to get some prosecutors dismissed.