President Bush says he has put forward "a reasonable proposal" to allow Congress to learn how and why the Justice Department and the White House came to fire eight U.S. attorneys.
Congressional Democrats should take him up on it, he said, rather than forcing "an avoidable confrontation" by issuing subpoenas for some of his key aides.
"We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," the president said Tuesday. "The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows that some are more interested in scoring political points than in understanding the facts. It would be regrettable if they choose to go down the road of issuing subpoenas. ...
"I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials."
The Bush White House has been opposed to any of its officials appearing before congressional committees, arguing that such testimony violates executive privilege.
Bush's offer includes allowing a bipartisan group of committee members to interview top political adviser Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and their two deputies -- but not under oath and without a transcript of the proceedings. And he said he is "absolutely" prepared to go to the mat in support of his proposal.
Bush said he will not allow Rove and the others to testify under oath because it would damage their ability to give the president "candid advice."
But, he said, "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his key staff will testify before the relevant congressional committees to explain how the decision was made and for what reasons."
The president's offer also includes communications between White House staffers and the Justice Department on the firings, although not communications between various White House officials on the matter.
Key Democrats have already rejected the offer. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, received the offer from White House Counsel Fred Fielding in a late Tuesday afternoon meeting.
"I don't accept his offer," Leahy said in a written statement. "It is not constructive and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation, or to prejudge its outcome."
Leahy also complained about the 3,000 documents the Justice Department handed over to the committees late Monday, saying redactions in the documents make them unworkable.
"Instead of freely and fully providing relevant documents to the investigating committees, they have only selectively sent documents, after erasing large portions that they do not want to see the light of day," he said.
Earlier, Fielding met with other members of the House and Senate judiciary committees to present the offer for interviews with the aides.
The committees are considering using subpoenas to force Rove, Miers and their two deputies to reveal what they knew about the reasons behind the firings of at least seven U.S. attorneys.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters after the meeting with Fielding that the offer from the White House "is incomplete."
"We would be able to interview the four people we requested, Karl Rove, Counsel Miers and their two assistants, but only in private, not under oath and with no transcript," he said. "And the last part of this is the most troubling of all. When there's no transcript what do we do when people's recollections are different? Furthermore, when there is no transcript, and what, say, Karl Rove says contradicts what somebody else has said, what do we do?"
Lawmakers from both parties are questioning whether the firings of several U.S. attorneys were politically motivated.
Justice Department officials say the dismissals of at least seven U.S. attorneys were based on performance or managerial problems, but acknowledged that one fired attorney was pushed out to make way for a protege of President Bush's top political adviser, Rove.
Schumer and House Judiciary Committee head Rep. John Conyers said both committees will move forward to approve the use of subpoenas to get White House officials to testify.
That would not mean that subpoenas would be issued immediately, only that the committees would be able to use them.
"We are now going to take this back to our respective committees and in consultation with Schumer and Chairman Leahy we're going to decide together what our collective response will be," Conyers said.
The controversy over the firings has already cost the job of Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and prompted several from both sides of the aisle to call for Gonzales' resignation. But on Tuesday, Bush said Gonzales has his full support.
"I am confident he acted appropriately," Bush said from the White House. "I regret that it turned into a public spectacle."
"There is no indication [after reviewing the matter] that anyone did anything improper," the president said.