Leahy puts Judiciary Committe at front line of controversy

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(Host) Congress and the White House are facing a showdown over a fundamental constitutional question.

The confrontation concerns the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

And Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has put the Senate Judiciary Committee at the front line of the controversy.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel examines Leahy’s role in the debate.

(Leahy) “As you know today I issued more subpoenas …”

(Kinzel) The Committee has authorized its chairman, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, to subpoena White House staff members to testify about the decision to wiretap millions of Americans as part of the war on terror.

On a day that the Senate is consumed by a contentious debate over immigration, Leahy rushes to a news conference to say that he’s prepared to enforce the subpoenas even if it means seeking a resolution to hold the White House in contempt of Congress:

(Leahy) “I want the truth. We have not been getting truth and frankly I deal in truths. We all do. And if people don’t, then they should pay the penalty.”

(Kinzel) The Committee has also issued subpoenas to Karl Rove and several other White House aides in a case that involves the firing of 9 U.S. Attorneys late last year.

Leahy says some of them were fired because they didn’t aggressively pursue cases that the White House felt would embarrass a number of Democrats.

(Leahy) “The more and more evidence we get, it appears that a lot of their actions were politically motivated.”

(Kinzel) Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton was fired after he strongly opposed a decision by the Attorney General’s office to impose the death penalty in a case of drug dealer who had been charged with killing his supplier.

Testifying at a committee hearing, Charlton says he pushed for a life sentence because there was no forensic evidence and because the only testimony came from convicted felons.

(Charlton) “In this case there’s no ballistic evidence. In fact there’s no weapon. There’s no DNA upon the defendant that matches the victim. There’s no DNA upon the victim that matches the defendant. There are no hair samples. In fact we don’t have the body.”

(Kinzel) Republicans on the committee are divided over Leahy’s leadership on these issues.

Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter is the ranking minority member on the panel:

(Specter) Senator Leahy is a prodigious worker and a very effective senator.
Kinzel: Do you think he’s become too partisan as the chairman of the committee?”
Specter: “No, we get along very well. We have our differences on party lines, but he voted for Chief Justice Roberts. He has been supportive of Republican candidates. I think he has a good balance.”

(Kinzel) The White House has refused to comply with the subpoenas. White House attorney Fred Fielding has invoked a legal principle known as “Executive Privilege.” He argues that requiring members of the Bush Administration to testify will undermine the president’s ability to receive candid advice from his top aides.

Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch has battled with Leahy over this issue.

At a recent hearing, Hatch argued that Leahy made a mistake by not accepting a White House offer to discuss these cases in an informal setting.

(Hatch) “The point that I’m making is that they’re still offering to do this and we’d be much farther down the line if we’d taken up this offer.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he opposed the deal because the White House would have set the ground rules for the interviews and because the witnesses wouldn’t be under oath and their testimony wouldn’t be recorded.

It’s rare for members of the Senate to publicly criticize each other. The decorum of the chamber calls for polite differences of opinion.

This custom was challenged when Hatch told members of the committee that the letter written by White House attorney Fielding involving executive privilege was one the finest documents Hatch has seen in his long career.

Leahy was not impressed.

(Leahy) “By unanimous consent we’ll
declare in the committee that the senator from Utah thinks it’s a wonderful letter, he
(Hatch) “I know it’s a wonderful letter.”
(Leahy) ” and he’s willing to give it
a fawning acceptance!”
Hatch: “Did you say fawning? Now I’ve been very nice to you!”
Leahy: “I can’t think of anybody who could do a better job of defending the indefensible than you have. And I say that with great admiration.”
Hatch: “Well my admiration is equal to yours because you can beat a dead horse better than anybody I’ve seen yet.”

(Kinzel) If the White House refuses to comply with the subpoenas, Leahy could seek a Contempt of Congress motion. But it’s likely that Senate Republicans would filibuster the issue and prevent it from coming to the floor for a vote.

Leahy acknowledges that the Bush Administration may be able to run out the clock before any final legal action is taken.

(Leahy) “I’m sure they’ll try to delay. They know they’re only here for a year and half. I’m here longer than that and I’m not going to close my eyes to this.”

(Kinzel) The House could have an easier time taking legal action against the Bush Administration if the White House doesn’t comply with a similar set of subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary committee.

That’s because the Senate filibuster rules don’t apply in the House and Republicans won’t have the same opportunity to block a “contempt of Congress” resolution.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel.

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