WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Key congressional committee chairmen sent letters Thursday formally rejecting a White House proposal specifying the conditions under which White House aides could be interviewed by Congress about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
The letters to White House counsel Fred Fielding followed the Senate Judiciary Committee's authorization of subpoenas for political adviser Karl Rove, former counsel Harriet Miers and their top aides.
Both houses of Congress authorized subpoenas this week, but have not yet issued any. The authorization does not mean subpoenas will be issued, but they could be if White House officials do not agree to testify under oath voluntarily. (Watch senators spar over showdown with White House )
President Bush has offered to allow Congress to interview the officials without oath or transcription of testimony and in private. The president said he will not allow them to testify under oath because it would damage their ability to give him their "candid advice."
Still, the letters left room for negotiation.
"We would be pleased to discuss further proposals from you to achieve these objectives that provide us with the records and information we need to complete our investigation while respecting your needs and interests," Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in his letter.
Rep. John Conyers, Leahy's counterpart in the House, sent a nearly identical letter.
The Bush administration held its ground, however.
"Unfortunately, these letters show that they are not as interested in ascertaining the facts than a political fishing expedition," Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We remain hopeful that they will see wisdom in our reasonable offer."
Perino's boss, press secretary Tony Snow, previously had said pursuing subpoenas would trigger withdrawal of the offer to let the White House advisers discuss their knowledge of the firings in private interviews. Republicans on the Senate committee argued for interviews under the White House's conditions.
"If we don't like what we get, we can always issue a subpoena. ... Why not take what we can get in the interest of --" began ranking Republican member Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
"No!" interrupted Chairman Patrick Leahy.
"We're told what we can get is nothing, nothing, nothing!" he exclaimed angrily, shaking his finger. "We're told that we can have a closed-door meeting with no transcript, not under oath, limited number of people, and the White House will determine what the agenda is.
"That, to me, is nothing," he said.
Later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid implied there was a credibility problem with some who may testify.
"When you're dealing with the cast of characters we have... you might consider putting people under oath," Reid said.
"Karl Rove is an example. (He) came ... this close to being indicted for involvement in the Valerie Plame case, so I certainly think people should be under oath. At least Karl Rove. We could deal with some of the others," he said.
GOP committee member Sen. John Cornyn, who's usually an ally of the president, said before the meeting that he's "a little bit dubious about an interview behind closed doors. ... If there is going to be information provided, it best be provided in public. "
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday the administration is trying to avoid "showmanship" that would have a "chilling effect."
"We're trying to avoid a show trial," Snow said. "What this needs to be is a factual interview, not something where people are going to be sort of, 'I'm going after Karl Rove,' and you know that's going to happen."
Leahy stood firm.
"I'm not going to accept testimony that's not under oath behind closed doors when nobody in the public knows what was said. It just will not happen," Leahy said.
Gonzales 'very concerned'
Attending an official event in St. Louis, Missouri, Thursday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he will "be going up to the Congress and providing further clarification about what happened here."
Gonzales was meeting with regional groups of U.S. attorneys on Thursday, while separately, the Justice Department has begun to "engage each U.S. attorney in a district-specific dialogue on how to balance the department's priorities with local challenges," a Justice Department official said Wednesday.
Cornyn and three other GOP senators met with Gonzales on Wednesday. Cornyn said "his spirits were very good" although he's "very concerned" about the matter of the fired attorneys.
"He's trying to be cooperative, and I think he continues to be," Cornyn said. "I offered him words of advice: To make sure we get all the information out and respond completely to Congress' inquiry. He said he's tried to do that and will continue to do that."
Sampson requests more time
In a related development, Sens. Leahy and Specter had invited former Gonzales Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson to voluntarily appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, but in a letter Thursday, Sampson's lawyer requested more time to review the request and to go over documents still being released in the matter.
"In addition, we would request that the committee afford Mr. Sampson 72 hours after the last set of documents is released to make a decision concerning his willingness to submit to a voluntary interview or appearance before the committee," the letter stated. Sampson resigned on March 13 as the controversy over the firings erupted.
Since the beginning, Justice Department officials have said the dismissals of at least seven U.S. attorneys were based on performance or managerial problems. They have acknowledged that one fired attorney was pushed out to make way for a Rove protege.
Leahy also complained about the 3,000 documents the Justice Department handed over to the committees late Monday, saying redactions in the documents make them unworkable. (Watch how documents raise the question of whether Gonzales was in the loop)
In addition, e-mail correspondence on the matter released by the Justice Department includes a 16-day gap during the critical time period from November 15, 2006, to December 2, 2006. The gap has attracted the attention of congressional investigators. (Full story)
Critics of the firing of the prosecutors said the administration abused the Patriot Act in circumventing the usual confirmation procedure in naming their replacements
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