WASHINGTON - Democrats on both sides of the Capitol assailed the administration's handling of the Justice Department yet again yesterday, and a House committee recommended contempt charges against Karl Rove, the former top political adviser to President Bush.
The House Judiciary Committee voted, 20 to 14, along party lines to cite Rove for defying its subpoena to testify in an inquiry into improper political meddling in the department.
The committee recommendation now goes to the full House. A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said she would not decide until September whether to bring it to a final vote, the Associated Press reported.
Rove has denied any involvement with Justice Department decisions. His attorney, Robert Luskin, had urged the committee in a letter not to vote for a citation, calling it a "gratuitously punitive" action that would serve no purpose because the issue of executive privilege is the subject of two cases pending in federal courts.
Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, who is chairman of the committee, expressed regret that the panel had been forced to use its subpoena power. "Mr. Rove has left us no option," he said.
The committee's top Republican, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, accused Democrats of conducting "witch hunts" and neglecting the people's real business, such as energy needs and border security.
Congressional Democrats have been investigating the dismissal of nine US attorneys in 2006 and the possibility that they were dismissed because their handling of politically charged cases, such as allegations of wrongdoing by elected officials, was out of step with the administration's political agenda.
Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison. In practice, however, disputes between Congress and the White House in which the specter of contempt charges has been raised have usually been settled well short of the jailhouse door.
The White House has invoked executive privilege in asserting that current and former top officials cannot be forced to testify before Congress, because the president's right to confidential advice from his trusted aides would then be compromised. As a practical matter, it is highly unlikely that the US attorney's office in Washington would seek to prosecute former White House officials on the contempt charges.