WASHINGTON The White House and Congress clashed on Tuesday over President George W. Bush's power to keep close advisers like Karl Rove from testifying under oath about the firing of U.S. prosecutors.
Setting up a possible legal showdown, a testy Bush vowed he would go to court to rebuff congressional orders "dragging White House members up there to score political points" during what he described as "show trials."
"Absolutely, I hope the Democrats choose not to do that. ... We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition," Bush said at the White House. He also offered fresh confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose resignation has been demanded by Democrats and some Republicans.
Recent disclosures about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys has ignited a firestorm over whether the prosecutors were pushed out for political reasons and prompted calls for Gonzales to resign.
The White House earlier on Tuesday offered to make Rove available to congressional investigators probing the firings but rejected Democratic demands he testify under oath.
Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rejected the offer after discussing it with White House counsel Fred Fielding.
""I don't accept his offer. It is not constructive and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation, or to prejudge its outcome," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, denounced it as well, charging the administration has offered "a bunch of different stories" about why the prosecutors were fired last year.
"Congress and the American people deserve a straight answer," Reid said. "If Karl Rove plans to tell the truth, he has nothing to fear from being under oath like any other witness."
Democrats described Fielding's offer as unsatisfactory, saying they want the witnesses under oath. But they also said they would consider it before formally responding.
"It is sort of giving us the opportunity to talk to them, but not giving us the opportunity to get to the bottom of what really happened here," said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. "In that way, it is a pretty clever proposal."
"We are considering that option, but not for closing any other option, including compelling testimony via subpoena," Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez of California said.
Sanchez's Judiciary subcommittee plans to vote on Wednesday on whether to authorise subpoenas of Rove and four other past and present administration members, including former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Miers initially was blamed for coming up with the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys after Bush's re-election in 2004.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is to vote to authorise subpoenas on Thursday. It is particularly interested in Rove because his former aide was named to replace one of the prosecutors fired last year.
Fielding also offered Miers, deputy White House counsel William Kelley and political adviser Scott Jennings.
Critics charge the administration dismissed the prosecutors to make room for its allies or because it felt some were too tough on Republicans and not tough enough on Democrats.
Recently released documents showed the prosecutors were judged on such factors as their effectiveness as well as their loyalty to the administration and support of its initiatives.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Steve Holland)