Democrats portrayed the subpoena authority, approved on voice vote by both the House and Senate Judiciary committees, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the terms of any testimony by White House political adviser Karl Rove.
The committees' chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., appeared in no rush to issue subpoenas to White House officials and provoke a standoff.
Talks continued behind the scenes, officials said, even as the White House and majority Democrats engaged in strategic posturing before the cameras.
While President Bush has publicly expressed his support for the embattled Attorney General, Gonzales has a morale problem inside his Justice Department, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports. Some officials are increasingly worried that the scandal surrounding the firing of eight federal prosecutors has become a distraction for the other U.S. Attorneys who are supposed to be fighting crime.
In letters Thursday, Senate and House Democrats rejected White House counsel Fred Fielding's offer to let Rove and other administration officials talk about their roles in the firings, but only on Bush's terms: in private, off the record and not under oath.
"I have never heard the Senate take an ultimatum like that," Leahy said. "I know he's the decider for the White House. "But he's not the decider for the United States Senate."
"Your proposal will not facilitate a full and fair inquiry," wrote Conyers and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
White House spokesman Tony Snow cast the administration's offer to allow Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies talk to lawmakers in private as the best deal Democrats are going to get.
"We opened with a compromise," Snow told reporters. "By our reaching out, we're doing something that we're not compelled to do by the Constitution." But, he added, "The phone lines are still open."
Snow, in an interview on CBS' The Early Show accused supporters of subpoenas of wanting "a Perry Mason scene where people are hot-dogging and grandstanding and trying to score political points."
In a testy exchange with The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith Snow said the White House's offer was generous.
"If anybody's worried about the communication the White House may have made with somebody, they're going to get it," Snow tersely responded. "If they're going to want to get an answer and want to get the facts from somebody, they're going to get it. What they're not going to get is the ability to create a show trial atmosphere."