The House Judiciary Committee filed suit Monday to force former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to provide information about the firing of U.S. attorneys.
The lawsuit filed in federal court says Miers is not immune from the obligation to testify and that she and Bolten must identify all documents that are being withheld from Congress.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said, "We will not allow the administration to steamroll Congress."
Conyers said he is confident the federal courts will agree that the Bush administration's claims to be immune from congressional oversight are at odds with constitutional principles.
The White House took the opposite view.
"They continue to focus on partisan theater," White House press secretary Dana Perino said of House Democrats. "The confidentiality that the president receives from his senior advisers and the constitutional principle of separation of powers must be protected from overreaching and we are confident that the courts will agree with us."
Executive privilege at issue
The House committee early last year subpoenaed Bolten for documents and Miers for testimony in trying to make a case that the White House directed the firing of nine U.S. attorneys because they were not supportive enough of Republicans' political agenda.
Bolten and Miers refused to comply.
On President Bush's behalf, White House Counsel Fred Fielding said such information is private and covered by executive privilege.
The House passed the contempt citation by a 223-32 vote that most Republicans boycotted.
A week and a half ago, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he would not refer the House's contempt citation to a grand jury and that neither Bolten nor Myers had committed a crime.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then announced she had given the Judiciary Committee authority to sue Bolten and Myers in federal court.
The lawsuit says executive privilege — intended to protect the confidentiality of advice from the president's closest advisers — does not cover documents that don't involve the president.
The privilege also does not cover documents whose contents are widely known, previously released or that were the subject of extensive, previously authorized testimony, the lawsuit adds.
The lawsuit says the White House is making a blanket claim of executive privilege, despite the administration saying that the president was not personally involved in communications subpoenaed form Bolten.
It says Miers' conduct is inconsistent with representations that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel made to Congress in 1971 when OLC was being run by William H. Rehnquist, who later was named to the Supreme Court and later chief justice.
Rehnquist told Congress that a witness intending to invoke executive privilege may not simply ignore congressional subpoena and fail to appear.
Conyers said the administration "simply will not negotiate towards a compromise resolution, so we must proceed."
During the Watergate scandal, the Supreme Court confirmed the legitimacy of the executive privilege doctrine. At the same time, the court found the privilege to be qualified and rejected President Nixon's assertion of privilege over the White House tape recordings.
The court ruling prompted Nixon to surrender the tapes to prosecutors and ultimately to resign from office.