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Bush would bar prosecution if aides cited for contempt

WASHINGTON -- President Bush won't allow the prosecution of his aides if they are cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the firing of eight US attorneys, the White House said.

The comments by spokesman Tony Snow further escalate a looming constitutional showdown between Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress over the president's refusal to turn over documents about the dismissals or let aides testify under oath.

The House Judiciary Committee has taken initial steps to hold Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, and the president's former counsel, Harriet E. Miers, in contempt. House approval of a contempt citation would be referred to a US attorney for submission to a grand jury. Criminal contempt of Congress, a misdemeanor, carries a penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Snow told reporters yesterday that the US attorney isn't required to prosecute.

"The legislative branch is not in a position to compel action on the part of the executive branch, other than in areas related to legitimate oversight," he said. It would be "futile and purely political" to refer a contempt case against an executive branch official to a federal prosecutor, he said.

Congress also has the constitutional power, rarely invoked, to conduct its own contempt trials and jail those who refuse to cooperate, bypassing a referral to a US prosecutor. Bush has asserted executive privilege to withhold documents and bar aides from answering questions under oath, citing the need to keep the advice he receives confidential.