Conflict Between Congress and Bush Grows–Could It Lead to Impeachment?

While Democrats from Pelosi to Obama have recently been quoted as taking impeachment off the table, this does not mean that there won’t be significant battles to come between the Legislative and Executive branches:

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday that he will attempt to cite the White House for criminal contempt of Congress if it does not turn over documents related to the firing of nine federal prosecutors.

“If they don’t cooperate, yes, I’d go that far,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is very important to the American people.”

Leahy’s comments raise the stakes in a growing conflict between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Bush White House, suggesting that the constitutional clash may end up in a court case that could last beyond Bush’s tenure as president.

Congressional investigators want testimony, internal e-mails and other documents to clarify what role President Bush’s senior staff members played in the Justice Department’s removal of nine prosecutors last year. The firings have triggered bipartisan calls for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign.

The White House has refused congressional requests for information, asserting executive privilege, a claim invoked since George Washington’s time to mean that the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution allows each branch to operate freely from the control or supervision of the others.

In a letter sent last Friday to Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), White House counsel Fred F. Fielding said the privacy of the documents must be respected to ensure that presidential advisers feel free to provide “candid and unfettered advice.”

This leaves it for Congress to respond:

Lawmakers have given the White House until next Monday to provide a signed letter from the president asserting executive privilege, as well as a description of each withheld document, a list of who has seen the documents and the legal basis for arguing that the documents may be shielded from public view.

Leahy’s committee last week issued more subpoenas to the White House, Justice Department and vice president’s office seeking information about the domestic eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency.

The next step is for the congressional committee chairman to rule on the validity of the privilege claims. If the claims are deemed invalid, the committee can repeat the directive to comply. If the president continues to refuse, the committee can find the president in criminal contempt, and the issue would go to the full Senate or House. If a majority in either chamber approves the criminal citation, the matter is referred to a U.S. attorney with a recommendation to issue an indictment.

I wonder if there are enough U.S. attorneys left who would take on the White House in this manner. If Congress believes that George Bush has committed criminal contempt, the only alternative might be for Congress to seek an indictment in to form of impeachment.

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