The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday subpoenaed President Bush's former chief political adviser, Karl Rove, to testify about whether the White House improperly meddled with the Justice Department.
Accusations of politics influencing decisions at the department led to the resignation last year of Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
It's unclear whether Rove will ever be forced to testify. The White House refuses to let him or other top aides testify about private conversations with Bush, citing executive privilege to block Congress' demands.
The subpoena orders Rove to appear before the House panel on July 10. Lawmakers want to ask him about the White House's role in firing nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006 and the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama, a Democrat.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers had negotiated with Rove's attorneys for more than a year over whether he would testify voluntarily.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Rove has failed to cooperate with our requests," Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement. "Although he does not seem the least bit hesitant to discuss these very issues weekly on cable television and in the print news media, Mr. Rove and his attorney have apparently concluded that a public hearing room would not be appropriate."
Conyers added: "Unfortunately, I have no choice today but to compel his testimony on these very important matters."
Both Rove and his attorney, Robert Luskin, declined to comment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also authorized subpoenaing Rove, who did not show up to testify. Senate Democratic leaders, not anxious to pick a difficult political fight in an election year, didn't plan to seek a vote on whether to hold Rove in contempt of Congress, which is a criminal offense.
In a May 21 letter to the House panel, Luskin called the then-threatened subpoena a "gratuitous confrontation." He said Rove was willing to talk to congressional investigators, but only behind closed doors and without a transcript being made of the session.
"While the committee has the authority to issue a subpoena, it is hard to see what this will accomplish, apart from a Groundhog Day replay of the same issues that are already the subject of litigation," Luskin wrote in the letter. It was released both by Conyers' staff and later by a spokesman for Luskin who responded to a call for comment.
The White House all but jeered at the subpoena, calling it "political theater."
"We'll review the subpoena, assess its relationship to currently pending matters, and respond at the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
In announcing the subpoena, Conyers released a May 5 letter showing that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating whether Siegelman was the target of "selective, politically motivated prosecutions."
The office, which is the department's internal ethics board, also has been investigating whether politics played a part in the firing of the nine U.S. Attorneys. Results of the joint inquiry into the fired prosecutors, which has been ongoing for more than a year with the department's inspector general, are expected to be released in coming months.
Gonzales quit last September, dogged by months of accusations that he let political forces at the White House influence hiring and firing decisions at the fiercely independent Justice Department.
The nine U.S. Attorneys were fired in an unusual midterm purge in part for apparently not being "loyal Bushies," as Gonzales' former staff chief put it. Justice Department documents show that Rove, as early as January 2005, questioned whether the nation's 94 U.S. Attorneys should all be replaced at the start of Bush's second term, and that to some degree he worked to get some prosecutors dismissed.
Additionally, the department's former White House liaison admitted to considering GOP loyalty when deciding whether to hire career attorneys -- violating laws that protect against discrimination.
In Siegelman's case, the former governor was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for a 2006 bribery conviction but was released in March when a federal appeals court ruled he raised "substantial questions of fact and law" in his appeal. Siegelman has long accused GOP operatives of pushing prosecution -- claims that were bolstered last year by Republican campaign volunteer Jill Simpson, who issued a sworn statement that she overheard conversations suggesting that Rove was involved in his case.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary panel, said he would demand that Simpson testify at the July 10 hearing to explain what he described as "unfounded accusations against Karl Rove."
Separately on Thursday, Siegelman asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn his jury conviction or grant him a new trial.
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