A House subcommittee voted Thursday to subpoena internal White House documents about Solyndra, opening a new phase in House Republicans’ feud with the Obama administration about the failed solar manufacturer.
A major question now is whether President Barack Obama will assert executive privilege to protect some of the documents, including his personal BlackBerry messages.
House Republicans also have to figure out what they actually want.
Early drafts of their subpoenas indicated that the Republicans could issue open-ended demands for more than three years of West Wing communications. But minutes after the 14-9 party-line vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, GOP members said they might narrow their request.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told reporters that he would “take into account” an offer Wednesday night from White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler to hand over internal West Wing records on two key moments in the Solyndra saga: the period around the Energy Department’s March 2009 conditional commitment to the California solar company and the February 2011 restructuring of its $535 million loan guarantee.
“They opened the door a little bit last night,” Upton said. “That’s a good step. We’re going to look at the number of proposals that they offered last night, maybe expand it.”
That semi-conciliatory moment followed a subcommittee meeting filled with angry rhetoric from Democrats, who accused the GOP of overreaching, and Republicans, who said they were tired of the White House stringing them along.
“We do not have any faith in the White House overtures that seem to simply want to delay and obstruct,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the oversight subpanel.
Stearns and other GOP leaders said the White House repeatedly ignored their demands for all Solyndra-related materials since the start of Obama’s term, and they complained that the administration wasn’t answering even basic questions about the documents.
The White House immediately expressed dismay about Thursday’s vote.
“We are disappointed that the committee has refused to discuss their requests with us in good faith and has instead chosen a partisan route, proceeding with subpoenas that are unprecedented and unwarranted,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an emailed statement. He added, “We’d like to see as much passion in House Republicans for creating jobs as we see in this investigation.”
Schultz said all records released to date show that the administration’s handling of Solyndra “was a merit-based decision made by the Department of Energy.”
The administration has furnished the subcommittee with more than 80,000 pages of DOE documents about Solyndra. That includes a 15,000-page release Wednesday revealing that top White House officials, including former energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, had been in the loop before Solyndra closed one of its factories in 2010.
Other emails released Wednesday showed that early this year, an aide to Vice President Joe Biden sought information about Solyndra’s private investors — “just for background” — a day after DOE approved new terms that placed taxpayers second in line for repayment.
The Republicans are directing their two subpoenas to White House chief of staff Bill Daley and Biden’s chief of staff, Bruce Reed. But they’re also demanding messages exchanged among several other senior West Wing aides, including Daley’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel; senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett; former National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff.
Democrats complained Thursday that the scope of the subpoenas was overly broad.
“The subpoena asks for just about damn near anything,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Energy and Commerce ranking member, said the panel crossed a line he wouldn’t have transgressed when he was chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee during the George W. Bush administration.
Republicans have embarked on a “fishing expedition” that “manufactures a controversy” with the White House, Waxman said. “This is no way to run an investigation. It’s certainly no way to run an investigation that should be bipartisan.”
“A subpoena to the White House is a serious step in a congressional investigation,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the subcommittee’s ranking member. “It’s a step that should only be taken after alternative avenues have been exhausted. We clearly do not face these circumstances today.”
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) noted that he couldn’t get a similar demand through the Natural Resources Committee when it was looking into the BP oil spill.
But Republicans said they had waited long enough.
“The administration has touted the tens of thousands of pages of documents, most of them highly technical, it has turned over, never mentioning that producing these documents was like extracting a tooth without anesthesia — unnecessarily painful, time consuming as well,” Upton said.
Republicans said the records they’ve received may help to show the White House’s Solyndra-related conversations with outside agencies but that they don’t tell the full story about internal discussions.
“I do wish that it had not come to this,” Upton said, adding that subpoenas are a “tool that we use sparingly and only as a last resort. Today, it is our last resort.”
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) also cited a POLITICO story about congressional testimony Wednesday from the Energy Department’s inspector general, who said his office has launched more than 100 criminal investigations related to economic stimulus spending.
Prepping for a legal showdown, Stearns told Fox Business News on Wednesday that he expects a page-by-page review of the documents after the subpoenas arrive at the White House. Even then, though, Stearns said that Obama’s lawyers should be careful if they invoke executive privilege.
“He just can’t have a blanket executive privilege,” Stearns said. “He’s got to defend it and show which ones he’s talking about.”
House Democrats said they wouldn’t begrudge Obama if he invoked privilege.
“The president of the United States has a legitimate reason to want his staff to be able to freely communicate with him and to talk to each other before they communicate with him,” Waxman said, echoing arguments Republicans used to make when Democrats sought documents from the Bush administration. “And that is something that the Congress of the United States is not entitled to get.”
Democrats also warned that an open-ended subpoena would cause delays in getting anything.
“If I were at the White House and I had this huge request, all documents, I wouldn’t give anything to the committee until they got all the documents together,” Waxman said. “And that may end up delaying what the committee gets, not accelerating the request.”
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.