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Democrats OK array of subpoenas

Panels are probing war justification and the attorney firings, among other things. Legislators call it a return to oversight.

WASHINGTON - Putting their congressional control to work, Democrats approved new subpoenas yesterday - and a grant of immunity - for investigations that include the prosecutor firings, White House political activities, and President Bush's justification for the war in Iraq.

Democrats said the broad array of probes marked a revival of Congress' role after six years of little oversight of the Bush administration by Republican lawmakers.

The White House is pushing back, refusing to allow officials to testify under oath about the firings and arguing that top officials - including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, subject of one of the subpoenas - have already answered questions about the Bush administration's now-discredited claim that Iraq was seeking uranium for a bomb.

"I am beginning to wonder whether the White House has any interest in the American people learning the truth about these matters," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.).

Congress' effort isn't driven solely by Democrats. Republicans have barely concealed their disdain for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' accounting of the firings of federal prosecutors, including his assertions of a faulty memory.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, cosigned a letter with Leahy urging Gonzales to freshen his memory and provide answers within a week.

"We are reviewing this request," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.

Congress was ramping up investigations on several fronts:

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 21-10 to issue a subpoena to Rice to compel her testimony on the administration's prewar claims about Saddam Hussein's seeking weapons of mass destruction.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 32-6 to grant immunity from prosecution to Monica Goodling, Gonzales' White House liaison, for testimony on why the administration fired eight federal prosecutors. The panel also unanimously approved, but did not issue, a subpoena to compel her to testify. The committee scheduled a May 10 hearing for Gonzales.

Leahy's Senate panel approved, but did not issue, a subpoena in the firings matter for Sara Taylor, deputy to Bush political adviser Karl Rove.

The House oversight committee also issued subpoenas for the Republican National Committee for testimony and documents about White House e-mail on RNC accounts said to be missing. The RNC released a letter to the panel listing 37 White House officials who have RNC e-mail accounts, including Rove.

Gonzales was trying to mend fences in his first visit to Capitol Hill since his punishing appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. He met privately with Sen. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), who has said Gonzales wasn't truthful with him about the dismissal of the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. The outreach didn't take.

"I reiterated with the attorney general, face to face, that I think he should resign," Pryor said after the meeting.

Lawmakers say they want to uncover the story of why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired.

Pryor's harsh words on Gonzales were echoed by lawmakers in both parties, though Republicans tended to leave out the actual call for his resignation. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa) noted a pragmatic concern: The waning months of the Bush administration complicate prospects for confirming a new attorney general.

On the uranium issue, Rice's allies maintained that she has for years answered Congress' questions under oath, as well as media inquiries, on her knowledge of Bush's claims about Hussein's intentions.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, traveling with Rice in Europe for NATO meetings, said department officials would try to answer the committee's questions, but he indicated that Rice might not comply with a subpoena.

"Those matters are covered by executive privilege," he said.

The House oversight committee's chairman, Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.), said that position offered "no choice but to proceed with a subpoena."

On the prosecutor firings, the House Judiciary Committee approved two measures that would compel Goodling's testimony and grant her immunity from prosecution for what she says. Some Republicans cautioned that immunity has tied prosecutors' hands in the past.