The White House blinked first Wednesday in a fight with House Republicans over documents about its secretive creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
It belatedly turned over such papers - literally minutes before Republicans were to push contempt of Congress charges against Katie McGinty, chairwoman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, was happy to finally obtain documents Republicans had sought for months, and for which the House Resources Committee finally issued subpoenas that had ordered them delivered by last Thursday.
But Hansen almost seemed disappointed he couldn't pursue contempt charges against McGinty. "Everything was ready to go," he said, shaking his head.
Hansen said meetings with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the full GOP caucus had cleared the road for such charges Wednesday.
"We (the committee) would have passed it today, and the full House would have debated it tomorrow. It would have passed. That got back to the White House, and they turned over the documents," said Hansen, chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Lands.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the full Resources Committee, said, "I hope the administration is through trying to hide documents" - and said his staff is trying to ensure that all papers sought have indeed been provided.
"From the beginning, the White House has tried to hide this decision from any scrutiny, and was attempting to obstruct congressional oversight by illegally refusing to produce subpoenaed documents," Young said.
The administration, however, had voluntarily turned over more than 100 documents to the committee. But it had withheld at least 27 others - but allowed members or top staff to view them and take notes. Hansen and others said that wasn't good enough.
"I was only given about an hour or so to look at them," he said. "When I started taking notes, they said I couldn't do that. I said, `Try and stop me.' "
Hansen said the documents he has seen will better show that the monument was created only to politically boost Clinton's presidential campaign.
"They sold this to the American people as something to protect the land. But it was totally political," he said, adding he intends to have all documents released publicly soon.
The White House had informally asserted that some of the just-released documents were protected from release by "executive privilege" because they were communications directly with the president or vice president.
But the House Resources Committee said the claim was never officially made, and it also doubted that would be legally valid. And after McGinty failed to make the formal assertion or provide docu-ments as the subpoena demanded by last Thursday, it was prepared to seek contempt of Congress charges.
Utah officials and House Republicans, of course, have charged that the White House lied to them about plans for the monument - telling them nothing was imminent when they heard rumors, even though it was created a week later.
Full details of the monument were not given to Utah officials until the day the monument was created - even to Democratic Rep. Bill Orton, which likely cost him re-election.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah - who defeated Orton, and is a member of the Resources Committee - also blasted the White House again Wednesday and hailed the GOP victory in finally obtaining the documents it sought.
"This sends a strong message that Congress will no longer play games with the Clinton administration," Cannon said.
"It's unacceptable that they resorted to the extreme act of ignoring a congressional subpoena for nearly a week before finally producing the documents," he said.
Cannon added that he feels such action "has only served to further galvanize bipartisan opposition to the secretive process used to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument."
The Utah delegation earlier this month used such feelings to pass through the House a bill that would restrict the ability of presidents to create permanent national monuments without permission of Congress to only 50,000 acres in size.
Hansen has said he also plans to introduce soon a bill that would shrink the 1.7 million-acre monument to much smaller areas he feels are truly worthy of national park status.
Also, some groups have sued seeking to dismantle the new monument, saying Clinton improperly used the Antiquities Act to create it. Some of the new documents could be keys in proving whether the administration properly determined whether key features were in true need of protection, and whether boundaries were drawn only as large as necessary for that.