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CONTEMPT CITATIONS RATCHET UP HOUSE TENSION

The House escalated a constitutional showdown with President Bush on Thursday, approving the first ever contempt of Congress citations against West Wing aides and reigniting last year's battle over the scope of executive privilege.

On a 223-32 vote, the House approved contempt citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that administration officials sought to politicize the Justice Department.

The vote came after a morning of partisan bickering over parliamentary rules, including a GOP call for a vote on a motion to close the chamber that briefly forced lawmakers to leave a memorial service for Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., who died this week.

The conflict was capped later in the day when most House Republicans walked off the floor and refused to cast a final vote. They accused Democrats of forcing a partisan vote on the contempt citations instead of approving a surveillance law supported by Bush.

Democrats said they were left with no choice but to engage in a legal showdown with Bush because he has refused for nearly a year to allow any current or former West Wing staff member to testify in the inquiry.

"This is beyond arrogance. This is hubris taken to the ultimate degree," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in the debate's closing moments.

The administration immediately condemned the House action, noting that no White House official has ever been cited for contempt.

The contempt resolution against Bolten cites his refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents and e-mails. Miers was cited for refusing to testify.

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The White House said the Justice Department would not ask the U.S. attorney to pursue the contempt cases, but the measure would allow the House to bring a lawsuit.

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