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Battle heats up over fired US attorneys

Congress is threatening contempt citations, while President Bush claims executive privilege.

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Think the months-long confrontation between the White House and Congress over the dismissal of federal prosecutors already has been heated? Just wait. It's now on the verge of escalating into all-out legal war.

President Bush, citing executive privilege, has refused to provide testimony and documents requested by the Democrat-led Congress. Congressional leaders are threatening contempt citations in response. Both sides seem willing to fight over what they deem to be their constitutional prerogatives.

If they do, the ensuing court battle could be bitter and draining and drag on through the administration's final months, hampering Mr. Bush's attempt to shape a domestic legacy.

"It's a huge distraction to the Bush presidency's ability to focus on other matters, no doubt about it," says Mark Rozell, an expert on executive privilege at George Mason University.

This struggle comes at a time when a real war in Iraq is straining US resources and raising tensions between a Republican White House and a Congress controlled by Democrats.

The direction of the political struggle may be clearer as early as Wednesday, when former White House political director Sara Taylor is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss what she knows about last year's sudden firings of eight US attorneys.

On Monday, White House counsel Fred Fielding sent the Senate panel a combative letter in which he indicated that the White House would not turn over documents related to the controversy and would try to block the testimony of Ms. Taylor and other former and current White House officials.

"The assertion of executive privilege here is intended to protect a fundamental interest of the presidency: the necessity that a president receive candid advice from his advisers," wrote Mr. Fielding.

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