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Ellison votes with majority on contempt citations against White House aides

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Ellison speaks at U of M
5th District Rep. Keith Ellison.
Photo by Tim Rummelhoff, courtesy of the University of Minnesota Law School

(AP) - The House Judiciary Committee voted contempt of Congress citations Wednesday against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and President Bush's former legal counselor, Harriet Miers.  U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minn., sided with the majority Democrats.

      The 22-17 vote fell along party lines, with all the Democrats voting in favor, and all the Republicans voting against.  The citation,  which would sanction for pair for failure to comply with subpoenas on the firings of several federal prosecutors, now advances to the full House. 

Committee Chairman John Conyers said the panel had nothing to lose by advancing the citations because it could not allow presidential aides to flout Congress' authority.

Republicans warned that a contempt citation would lose in federal court even if it got that far.

"That won't do. There's no point of accountability."

      The drive to pass the citations on to a federal prosecutor comes after nearly seven months of a Democratic-driven investigation into whether the U.S. attorney firings were directed by the White House to influence corruption cases in favor of Republican candidates.

The administration has denied that, but also has invoked executive privilege on internal White House deliberations on the matter.

      White House counsel Fred Fielding had said previously that Miers and Bolten were both absolutely immune from congressional subpoenas -- a position that infuriated lawmakers.

"If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored, where a witness under a duly authorized subpoena doesn't even have to bother to show up, where privilege can be asserted on the thinnest basis and in the broadest possible manner, then we have already lost," Conyers, D-Mich., said before the vote. "We won't be able to get anybody in front of this committee, or any other."

Ellison said the White House's offer to let the two testify in private and without a transcript was unacceptable.

"That won't do. There's no point of accountability," said Ellison. "They have to be sworn.  These kind of measures are necessary to ensure that truth-telling occurs."

Conyers' predecessor, former Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., argued that Democrats can't win that fight.

      A civil lawsuit in federal court would be less perilous for the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, he said, than a constitutional battle over contempt.

      "I think that the White House is going to win an argument in court" over the contempt matter, Sensenbrenner told the panel.

      "The proper thing to do is to determine the executive privilege claim aside from who said what, who refused to submit to what, who didn't show up to subpoena," the Wisconsin Republican said.

Instead, Congress should "direct the general counsel to the clerk of the House of Representatives to file a civil suit," Sensenbrenner added.

                         (Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)