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Suit Escalates Battle Between Branches

Escalating the years-long battle between the branches over the scope of executive power, the House Judiciary Committee filed suit today in federal court to force two White House officials to comply with subpoenas seeking documents and testimony on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

The lawsuit could prove to be a key test of the scope of executive privilege, and of Congress' ability to make sure its subpoenas and contempt citations carry weight. The legislative and executive branches have fought on a variety of fronts since President Bush took office, with the administration arguing that long-eroded executive powers must be strengthened and members of Congress -- mostly Democrats -- complaining that their ability to conduct oversight has been weakened.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the House General Counsel on behalf of the Judiciary panel, which issued contempt citations last year against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. The full House approved the citations last month.

Bolten and Miers have both refused to cooperate with the committee's investigation of the prosecutor firings and other allegations of politicization at the Justice Department. The Bush administration has cited executive privilege in its decision not to make Bolten and Miers available for sworn testimony, though it has offered to let the two speak to the committee as long as their statements are not under oath and not transcribed. House Democrats have refused to take that deal.

"We will not allow the administration to steamroll Congress," Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in a statement. "Under our system of checks and balances, Congress provides oversight of the executive branch to make sure that government power is not abused."

But Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), called the lawsuit a "partisan political stunt" and an example of "pandering to the left-wing fever swamps of loony liberal activists."

The Bush administration, particularly Vice President Cheney, has made no secret of its view that most executive branch deliberations deserve protection from the prying eyes of Congress. Before these contempt citations, the most recent high-profile fight on that front came when the Government Accountability Office (then known as the General Accounting Office) sued Cheney seeking the names of people who had met with the administration's energy task force. The GAO dropped that suit in 2003 after a federal court ruled in Cheney's favor.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 10, 2008; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch  
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