A Senate panel, following the House's lead, authorized subpoenas Thursday for White House political adviser Karl Rove and other top aides involved in the firing of federal prosecutors.
The Senate Judiciary Committee decided by voice vote to approve the subpoenas as Republicans and Democrats sparred over whether to press a showdown with President Bush over the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys.
Democrats angrily rejected Bush's offer to grant a limited number of lawmakers private interviews with the aides with no transcript and without swearing them in. Republicans counseled restraint, but at least one, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, backed the action.
A House Judiciary subcommittee authorized subpoenas in the matter Wednesday, but none has been issued.
Democrats said the move would give them more bargaining power in negotiating with the White House to hear from Bush's closest advisers.
"We're authorizing that ability but we're not issuing them," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the subpoenas. "It'll only strengthen our hand in getting to the bottom of this."
Republicans countered, however, that subpoenas were premature.
"I counsel my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to work hard to avoid an impasse. We don't need a constitutional confrontation," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel's top Republican.
Gonzales: 'I'm not going to resign'
Even as Democrats derided the White House's offer, Bush spokesman Tony Snow maintained that lawmakers will realize it is fair and reasonable once they reflect on it.
"We're not trying to hide things. We're not trying to run from things," he said. "We want them to know what happened."
Democrats, however, called Bush's position untenable.
"What we're told we can get is nothing, nothing, nothing," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman. "I know he's the decider for the White House -- he's not the decider for the United States Senate."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fighting for his job amid the prosecutor furor, vowed he would not step aside and promised to cooperate with Congress in the inquiry.
"I'm not going to resign," Gonzales told reporters after an event in St. Louis.
"No United States Attorney was fired for improper reasons," he added.
The Senate panel voted to approve subpoenas for Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and her former deputy, William Kelley. The House subcommittee Tuesday authorized subpoenas for Rove, Miers and their deputies.
'Hot-dogging and grandstanding'
Snow, in an interview on CBS's "The Early Show," accused supporters of subpoenas of wanting "a Perry Mason scene where people are hot-dogging and grandstanding and trying to score political points."
"I know a lot of people want this 'Showdown at the OK Corral' kind of thing. People might have a beef if we were withholding anything. We're not," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Even as both sides dug in publicly, prominent lawmakers worked behind the scenes to avert a court battle between the executive and legislative branches. Specter said he wanted to find a way for Bush's aides to testify publicly with a transcript -- which he called "indispensable" -- but would not insist on putting them under oath.
He said later he had not spoken with anyone at the White House about such a compromise.
"The dust has to settle first," Specter said.
Bush is standing by Gonzales, as Republicans and Democrats question the attorney general's leadership. The president insists that the firings of the prosecutors over the past year were appropriate, while Democrats argue they were politically motivated.
The prosecutors are appointed to four-year terms by the president and serve at his pleasure. meaning they can dismissed at any time.
Resisting sworn testimony
Democrats have rejected Bush's offer -- relayed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday by White House counsel Fred Fielding -- in large part because there would be no transcript and the testimony would not be public.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said it would be "outrageous," to allow Rove to testify off the record.
"Anyone who would take that deal isn't playing with a full deck," Reid said.
In a letter sent late Wednesday, Leahy and Specter formally asked Gonzales' former top aide Kyle Sampson -- who has resigned amid the prosecutors furor -- to testify "on a voluntary basis" next week before the Judiciary panel. The panel approved a subpoena for Sampson last week.
Braford Berenson, Sampson's lawyer, wrote Leahy and Specter Thursday requesting a delay until April 2 at the earliest, to give his client "more time to review the matter" and to allow Berenson to take a previously scheduled vacation with his family.
The double-barreled House and Senate actions don't guarantee an impasse.
With authorizations in hand, the Democratic chairmen of the Judiciary panels, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Leahy can issue subpoenas at any time. They also could continue to negotiate with the White House, with the threat of subpoenas as a bargaining chip.
Lawmakers know that if they press a clash with the White House, they could be facing months or years of legal wrangling before they learn anything about the role of the president's top advisers in the prosecutor firings.
"If we have the confrontation, we're not going to get this information for a very long time," Specter said.