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Senate panel authorizes subpoenas of Rove, other top White House aides in prosecutor firings

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel, following the House’s lead, has authorized subpoenas for White House political adviser Karl Rove and other top aides involved in the firing of federal prosecutors.

The Senate Judiciary Committee decided by voice vote to approve the subpoenas as Republicans and Democrats sparred over whether to press a showdown with President Bush over the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys.

Democrats angrily rejected Bush’s offer to grant a limited number of lawmakers private interviews with the aides with no transcript and without swearing them in. Republicans counseled restraint.

A House Judiciary subcommittee authorized subpoenas in the matter Wednesday, but none has been issued.

Democrats said the move would give them more bargaining power in negotiating with the White House to hear from Bush’s closest advisers.

“We’re authorizing that ability but we’re not issuing them,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the subpoenas. “It’ll only strengthen our hand in getting to the bottom of this.”

Republicans countered, however, that subpoenas were premature.

“I counsel my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to work hard to avoid an impasse. We don’t need a constitutional confrontation,” said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s top Republican.

Even as Democrats derided the White House’s offer, Bush spokesman Tony Snow maintained that lawmakers will realize it is fair and reasonable once they reflect on it.

“We’re not trying to hide things. We’re not trying to run from things,” he said. “We want them to know what happened.”

Democrats, however, called Bush’s position untenable.

“What we’re told we can get is nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman. “I know he’s the decider for the White House — he’s not the decider for the United States Senate.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fighting for his job amid the prosecutor furor, vowed he would not step aside and promised to cooperate with Congress in the inquiry.

“I’m not going to resign,” Gonzales told reporters after an event in St. Louis.

“No U.S. Attorney was fired for improper reasons,” he added.

Snow, in an interview on CBS’s “The Early Show,” accused supporters of subpoenas of wanting “a Perry Mason scene where people are hot-dogging and grandstanding and trying to score political points.”

“I know a lot of people want this ’Showdown at the OK Corral’ kind of thing. People might have a beef if we were withholding anything. We’re not,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Even as both sides dug in publicly, prominent lawmakers worked behind the scenes to avert a court battle between the executive and legislative branches. Specter, the panel’s senior Republican, is working to cut a deal with the White House to avoid having to issue the subpoenas.

Bush is standing by Gonzales, even as Republicans and Democrats question the attorney general’s leadership. The president insists that the firings of the prosecutors over the past year were appropriate, while Democrats argue they were politically motivated.

The prosecutors are appointed to four-year terms by the president and serve at his pleasure. meaning they can dismissed at any time.

Democrats have rejected Bush’s offer — relayed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday by White House counsel Fred Fielding — in large part because there would be no transcript and the testimony would not be public.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said it would be “outrageous,” to allow Rove to testify off the record.

“Anyone who would take that deal isn’t playing with a full deck,” Reid said.

In a letter sent late Wednesday, Leahy and Specter formally asked Gonzales’ former top aide Kyle Sampson — who has resigned amid the prosecutors furor — to testify “on a voluntary basis” next week before the Judiciary panel.

The double-barreled House and Senate actions don’t guarantee an impasse.

With authorizations in hand, the Democratic chairmen of the Judiciary panels, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Leahy can issue subpoenas at any time, but they haven’t done so yet.

They also could continue to negotiate with the White House, with the threat of subpoenas as a bargaining chip.

Specter floated a proposal late Wednesday in which a limited number of House and Senate lawmakers would be allowed to hear from White House aides who were not under oath, and a transcript of the proceedings would be provided.

Specter said his “strong preference” was that the testimony be public. It was not clear whether other Republicans or any Democrat would back such an approach.