Leahy gets OK to subpoena Rove; Sampson hesitates on testimony

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday empowered Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to subpoena Karl Rove and other senior White House aides, but Leahy’s increase in leverage came as a key witness in the panel’s probe of the U.S. attorney firings scandal expressed hesitation.

The subpoenas were authorized by voice vote, allowing Republicans to avoid openly resisting further inquiry into Department of Justice actions that many of their own have criticized. Yet Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sided with Democrats, characterizing his vote as a show of support for the congressional oversight process.

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Judiciary’s senior Republican, at first declined to reveal his vote, later adding that he abstained by remaining silent. Specter urged Democrats to negotiate with President Bush, whose Tuesday television address on the prosecutors was characterized as a proposal by the lawmaker.

“Did you notice today how cooler the rhetoric was?” Specter asked reporters after the vote. “[Bush] was making a proposal. Proposals beget counterproposals.”

Democrats encouraged Leahy to hold off on issuing summonses and reach out to White House Counsel Fred Fielding for a deal on testimony from Rove, former Bush counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters he did not expect a decision on formal subpoenas until after the Easter recess, stressing that the choice rests with both chambers’ Judiciary chairmen.

“We need to move away from subpoenas and separation of powers … and try to have the White House explain to the American people why they’ve misled us,” Reid said.

Among Judiciary members, however, tension mounted as Republicans warned against subpoenas they predicted would escalate and ultimately impede the investigation of the eight U.S. attorneys whose resignations Justice orchestrated alongside the White House. 

“If the administration invites us to litigate this” after rejecting the subpoenas, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said, “we’re never going to get the facts we say we want.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) continued to blast Justice’s conduct of the firings and defended the ousted prosecutors as “stellar in their performance,” but dismissed the legislative-executive standoff as “high school.”

“This is about who can make someone bloody, who can make someone look bad,” Coburn said.

Leahy said he would seek voluntary testimony Thursday from Kyle Sampson, who resigned as senior aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as the scandal began to heat up. Committee Democrats have hoped Sampson would avoid a subpoena by coming forward, but late yesterday his lawyer, Bradford Berenson, asked for a delay in a letter to Leahy and Specter.

Berenson said existing travel plans with his family would prevent him from joining his client next week. Berenson also asked that Sampson make his final decision to appear 72 hours after the last of several new document releases planned by the Justice Department and White House.

“We believe it would be unreasonable and counterproductive to expect Mr. Sampson to furnish testimony before he has an opportunity to review and analyze the full documentary record, which may be critical to refreshing his recollection,” Berenson wrote.

It is unclear when the document releases, which show a 16-day gap after Sampson informed the White House of the final plan to oust the eight attorneys, will cease. Leahy indicated that another document request is forthcoming.

“I assume he will accept our invitation,” Leahy said of Sampson, reminding the witness: “It’s an invitation at this point, not a subpoena.”

If Gonzales’s confirmation vote were restaged this week, he would net at least seven fewer votes than the 60 he won in 2005. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) took fire from his party’s liberal wing for defending Gonzales then, but this week edged closer to becoming his eighth lost supporter.