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GOP support for Gonzales continues to deteriorate

The party's No. 3 leader in the House and a Bush ally in the Senate signal it's time for change. The White House holds fast.

April 21, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Republican support for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales continued to evaporate Friday as the party's third-ranking leader in the House and an influential senator said Gonzales should consider resigning.

A day after failing to mollify members of the Senate Judiciary Committee over his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales launched a last-ditch effort to save his job in phone calls to congressional leaders. But the tide of opinion on Capitol Hill appeared to be turning against him.

Rep. Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, became the highest-ranking House Republican to call for Gonzales to step down, declaring Friday, "It's time for fresh leadership."

"There's been an erosion of confidence certainly in the Congress in his ability to continue to lead" the Justice Department, said Putnam.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a Judiciary panel member, urged Gonzales to spend the weekend reflecting on his leadership, and then have a "frank" discussion with the White House.

"If he and the president decide that he cannot be an effective leader moving forward, then he should resign," Sessions said. "As he said during the hearing, 'It's not about Al Gonzales.' The bottom line is that he must do what is in the best interest of the Department of Justice."

The White House, meanwhile, continued to express support for the attorney general.

Sessions, a U.S. attorney for 12 years and a reliable administration ally, is considered a bellwether of Republican opinion. Like Putnam, he had been critical of Gonzales' handling of the firings, but had stopped short of calling for his dismissal.

Gonzales suffered through a withering attack on his credibility Thursday as he struggled to explain his role in the events leading up to the dismissal of eight Republican-appointed prosecutors last year.

He has been criticized for giving shifting explanations about the level of his involvement, and his appearance Thursday raised even more questions. He testified that he ordered the firing of two of the prosecutors without independent knowledge of any problems with their performance.

That has fueled Democratic charges that the firings were aimed at affecting public corruption prosecutions to benefit Republicans. But the hearings have not produced any evidence of that.

Gonzales received some votes of confidence on Friday, but they were muted.

"Although his answers suggested that there were serious managerial issues at the Department of Justice, I did not see a factual basis to call for his resignation," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another Judiciary committee member. "As for whether the attorney general should resign, that is a question I leave to him and to the president."

Aides said Gonzales reached out to several members of Congress on Friday, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Specter was among those most critical of Gonzales at the hearing Thursday but did not call for him to resign.

After having cleared his calendar in recent weeks to prepare for the hearings, Gonzales returned to a more normal routine Friday. He attended a ceremony honoring people who assist and support crime victims. The White House announced that Bush was appointing him to a task force to work with states in addressing some of the questions raised by the Virginia Tech shootings.

The Justice Department said he would participate in a news conference Monday afternoon about a new program with the Federal Trade Commission to address identity theft.

Asked Friday whether Bush was interviewing candidates to succeed Gonzales, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters, "Not that I'm aware of, no."

She said that Bush had spoken to Gonzales after he testified and that the president was "pleased that the hearing had finally been held."

Perino said Gonzales "continues to have the president's full confidence."

"I can understand there are some people who still don't want to support the attorney general; that is their right. But he has done a fantastic job at the Department of Justice. He is our No. 1 crime fighter," Perino said.

Despite the erosion of support, some GOP lawmakers and strategists said Friday they saw little reason for making a change at the Justice Department, absent evidence of misconduct.

"The Democrats see an opportunity to score a lot of political points, so I don't necessarily believe that the attorney general's resignation would quell the Democrats' desire to continue with a partisan fishing expedition," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Cornyn called Gonzales "an honorable and decent man" who "finds himself in a tough situation."

"I thought that yesterday he did about as well as he could under the circumstances, but ultimately it will be up to the president and the attorney general himself as to whether or not he stays in office," he said.

Charles Black, a longtime Republican political consultant, said he thought the Democrats' investigation of Gonzales and their vow to forge ahead with it would work in his favor.

But Putnam said in an interview that Gonzales had "failed to reassure observers that he has the level of confidence and the credibility to continue on in such a sensitive position."

"My House colleagues are concerned about the management of the Department of Justice and how this most recent scandal has been handled," Putnam said.

He could not say how many of his GOP colleagues believe Gonzales should step down, saying that he expects many will reflect on that over the weekend.

"They recognize the sensitive issues that we all face that involve the Justice Department," Putnam said, "and know that we do deserve to have the best possible, most open, candid and effective leadership possible at the head of that department."

*

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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