WASHINGTON (AP) _ A GOP-led House committee voted Thursday to seek a criminal contempt charge against three presidential aides after President Clinton refused to turn over documents involving the White House travel office firings.

In a confrontation with the White House over the politically sensitive 1993 firings, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee voted 27-19, along party lines, to approve the contempt resolution. The Republicans charged the White House was stonewalling the committee's investigation by withholding the documents.

Democrats, accusing the Republicans of McCarthy-era tactics, insisted it was wrong to threaten people with a possible jail sentence over what is essentially a political issue. Contempt of Congress carries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

``There's a Kafka-esque quality to what we are doing here today,'' Rep. Thomas Barrett, D-Wis., said during an hours-long partisan debate that preceded the vote. ``I'd call it a kangaroo court but that would be unfair to kangaroos.''

If the full House approves the contempt resolution, House Speaker Newt Gingrich would ask Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who also is investigating the travel office firings, to enforce the contempt citation, Clinger has said.

White House counsel Jack Quinn, one of the three aides named in the contempt resolution, told committee Chairman William Clinger, R-Pa., in a letter, ``The president has directed me to inform you that he invokes executive privilege, as a protective matter.''

During the fight over President Nixon's Watergate tapes, the Supreme Court recognized that presidents can invoke executive privilege to prevent the release to Congress documents that deal with private conversations between the president and his aides.

The White House said the move was protective, given that Congress gave Clinton until Wednesday to turn over the documents or face a contempt vote, and that a final decision on which documents ultimately will be covered by the privilege will be made later.

Quinn's letter left open the possibility that after further review, some documents the White House is withholding may be released.

Also named in the contempt action are David Watkins, the former White House director of administration, and Matthew Moore, who was an aide to Watkins.

Clinger, who has been trying to get the documents for three years, pushed for the contempt resolution after his Wednesday evening deadline passed without the records being turned over. The White House has provided some 40,000 pages of documents in response to subpoenas issued by the committee in January, but Clinger said some important records were still missing.

Before the vote, Clinger assailed what he called the White House's ``culture of secrecy.''

``It is troubling ... that the president continues to attempt to contain a scandal that has no connection with national security or any vital domestic policy, but at the bottom is a scandal about the character of this presidency,'' he said.

Like Quinn, Clinger also signaled potential flexibility, saying he would wait a while before bringing the contempt resolution before the House, to give the White House ``an opportunity'' to comply.

At issue are documents related to the White House's firing in May 1993 of the seven longtime employees at the travel office, which arranges charters for reporters traveling with the president. The firings caused an uproar at the time, as Republican critics accused the White House of fabricating charges of incompetence against the employees so they could be replaced by Clinton allies.

Clinger said the committee wanted a brief description of each document being withheld. White House aides said they were willing to provide that, but committee aides said the offer came too late. Clinger also rejected a suggestion that he personally be allowed to view the records in a closed room but not obtain copies of them.

``Those offers still stand. ... We remain willing to compromise,'' said White House spokesman Mark Fabiani. He added, however, that a resolution of the impasse ``doesn't seem very likely'' at this point.

Fabiani called the contempt vote ``political harassment, pure and simple.''

Committee Democrats were rebuffed in an effort to postpone the vote until Quinn had a chance to testify before them at a public hearing on the documents issue.

Quinn has said the only documents withheld are those developed by his office to prepare for previous hearings by Clinger's committee and for Starr. He said they were not relevant to the travel office firings themselves and, therefore, the committee was not entitled to them.