Armed with an agreement by top Bush administration aides to testify under oath, congressional Democrats may finally learn the answer to a 2-year-old question: What role did George W. Bush's White House play in politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys?
Karl Rove and Harriet Miers agreed Wednesday to be questioned by the House Judiciary Committee, settling for now a major constitutional dispute that was going to be decided by the courts.
The legal issue was the constitutionality of Bush's assertion of executive privilege, to order the aides not to testify.
But there also was the political issue of who created the list of federal prosecutors who would lose their jobs. The House and Senate judiciary committees held more than a dozen hearings and depositions, but they never did learn the answer.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has often suspected the trail led to the White House but couldn't prove it. Now, his lawyers will have the chance to question the former Bush aides.
Rove also agreed to testify about the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama. Siegelman, a Democrat, has alleged that his prosecution was pushed by Republicans, including Rove.
The former governor was convicted in 2006 on bribery and other charges. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison but released last year when a federal appellate court ruled his appeal raised "substantial questions."
Nine U.S. attorneys were fired. An internal Bush Justice Department investigation concluded that political considerations played a part in at least four of the dismissals.
A federal prosecutor was appointed by Bush's last attorney general, Michael Mukasey, to investigate whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, other Bush administration officials or Republicans in Congress should face criminal charges in the firings. The dismissals took place under Gonzales' tenure.
The agreement calls for Rove and Miers, Bush's top political adviser and White House counsel, to be interviewed by the House committee in closed testimony "under the penalty for perjury," Conyers said. The committee could release the transcripts afterward, but the agreement also allows for public testimony.
"I have long said that I would see this matter through to the end and am encouraged that we have finally broken through the Bush administration's claims of absolute immunity," Conyers said in a statement.
"This is a victory for the separation of powers and congressional oversight. It is also a vindication of the search for truth. I am determined to have it known whether U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice were fired for political reasons, and if so, by whom."
The dispute not only raised the question of presidential power to order current aides not to testify — but whether that authority applied to former aides, after Rove and Miers left the government.
Last July, U.S. District Judge John Bates rejected Bush's contention that senior White House advisers were immune from the committee's subpoenas. The Bush administration appealed.
Until this dispute, Congress had never gone to court to demand the testimony of White House aides. Bates had suggested that the two sides settle to avoid a ruling that would be binding on future presidents and members of Congress.
Justice Department officials said the committee and the Obama administration would make a joint filing to the court asking the judge to place the case on hold. If the agreement is breached, the case could be revived.
White House counsel Greg Craig said the deal came after "a tremendous amount of hard work, patience and flexibility on both sides."
"The agreement will allow the committee to complete its investigation into the U.S. attorneys matter, and it will do so in the way such disputes have historically been resolved — through negotiation and accommodation between the legislative and executive branches," Craig said. "The president is pleased that the parties have agreed to resolve this matter amicably."
Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said previously his client was not opposed to testifying on the U.S. attorney issue but was compelled to obey Bush's order.