By voice vote, the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law decided to compel the president's top aides to testify publicly and under oath about their roles in the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
The White House has refused to budge in the controversy, standing by embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and insisting that the firings were appropriate.
CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that Gonzales will take to the road to fight for his job, spending the next week traveling the country to see as many U.S. attorneys as he can.
One source tells CBS News that Gonzales will apologize — not for the firings, but for the way he handled them.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said that in offering aides to talk to the committees privately, Mr. Bush had sought to avoid the "media spectacle" that would result from public hearings with Rove and others at the witness table.
"The question they've got to ask themselves is, are you more interested in a political spectacle than getting the truth?" Snow said of Tuesday's overture, which was relayed to Capitol Hill by White House counsel Fred Fielding.
Publicly, the White House held out hope there would be no impasse.
"The moment subpoenas are issued, it means they have rejected the offer," Snow said. But he added, "There's an important distinction between authorizing subpoenas and issuing them."
"There must be accountability," countered subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a vote Thursday on its own set of subpoenas, with Democrats complaining that the threat of force is the only way to get a straight answer from the White House.
"The White House is in a bunker mentality — won't listen, won't change," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I believe there is even more to come out, and I think it's our duty to bring it out."
The House subcommittee Wednesday approved, but has not issued, subpoenas for Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, their deputies and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, who resigned over the uproar last week.
The panel also voted to compel the production of documents related to the firings from those officials and Gonzales, Fielding and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolton. Fielding a day earlier refused to provide Congress internal White House communications on the subject.
The full Judiciary Committee would authorize the subpoenas if Chairman John Conyers of Michigan chose to do so.
Authorizing the subpoenas "does provide this body the leverage needed to negotiate from a position of strength," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
Republicans called the authorization premature, though some GOP members said they would consider voting to approve the subpoenas if Conyers promises to issue them only if he has evidence of wrongdoing.
Conyers agreed. "This (authority) will not be used in a way that will make you regret your vote."
Several Republicans said, "No" during the voice vote, but no roll call was taken.
For his part, Mr. Bush remained resolute.
Would he fight Democrats in court to protect his aides against congressional subpoenas?
"Absolutely," the president declared.
Mr. Bush said Tuesday he worried that allowing testimony under oath would set a precedent on the separation of powers that would harm the presidency as an institution.
A senior White House staff member told CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante the administration will not back down from the president's position, so there is no way Rove and other officials will testify.