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Vote on Gonzales marks juncture

As the Senate takes up a no-confidence motion, the next step in the firings probe is unclear.

June 11, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — By his own admission, he may have misled the public in describing his role in firing eight U.S. attorneys.

A top aide probably violated civil service laws by injecting politics into the hiring of career prosecutors at the Justice Department.

And his bedside manner leaves something to be desired.

But Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is nonetheless expected to survive today when the Senate takes up a no-confidence vote on his performance.

Now, the question is where a Democratic-led investigation of Gonzales' two-year tenure at the department goes from here, and whether it is losing steam.

"Purely a symbolic vote," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said on "Fox News Sunday." "What you've got here is a Senate that's had a great deal of difficulty delivering on any of its promises."

The vote marks a crucial juncture in a congressional probe that has raised questions about whether the mission of the Justice Department has been politicized under Gonzales.

The investigation began with the dramatic testimony of a group of U.S. attorneys fired last year -- and evidence suggesting that the White House and Justice Department conspired to replace them to affect public corruption and voting cases that would benefit Republicans.

Monica M. Goodling, a former Gonzales aide, testified under a grant of immunity that she considered the party affiliation and campaign contributions of applicants for career positions at the department an apparent violation of the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity.

And former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey alleged that Gonzales, with former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., tried to strong-arm then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft while he was laid up in a hospital bed into approving a secret and warrantless electronic surveillance program.

Gonzales has acknowledged that he might have initially misspoken in describing his role in some of these events, offering what he described as "imprecise and overbroad" answers about his role in the prosecutor purge.

Some Republicans called for Gonzales to resign, but he has retained the support of President Bush, his political mentor from Texas.

Gonzales has sought to put himself above the fray, appearing to go about his daily business. He is expected to be in Miami today to give a speech at a conference on nuclear terrorism, and later in Mobile, Ala., to address a child protection task force.

"Regardless of any action, the attorney general remains focused on the important issues that the American people expect him to address: securing our country from terrorism, protecting our neighborhoods from gangs and drugs, shielding our children from predators and pedophiles, and protecting the public trust by prosecuting public corruption," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement.

The Republican leadership appears to be falling in line behind Gonzales.

As concerned as some in the GOP are about the job that he has done at the department, they are approaching today's vote more as an opportunity to make a statement about the Democratic leadership. Fresh from the collapse of legislation to overhaul immigration policy, the nonbinding no-confidence resolution shows how Democrats are failing to lead on issues of importance to Americans, they say.

The policymaking Senate Republican Conference began circulating a series of talking points Friday urging Republicans to vote against the no-confidence resolution.

"This is a political stunt, a waste of time that distracts from more important Senate business, and is offensive to basic constitutional principles," according to a copy of the GOP talking points obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Even some Republicans who have called for Gonzales to resign, including Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, plan to vote against the measure.

"This vote is irrelevant," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "If I were them, I'd worry about the public's no-confidence vote in this Congress, which specializes in doing nothing and complaining about everything. The Senate should go back to work on serious business instead of playing these games."

Even a leader of the Democratic effort to oust Gonzales, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who a month ago said he felt there was a good chance the resolution would win the necessary 60 votes, was trying to lower expectations.

"If all senators who have actually lost confidence in Atty. Gen. Gonzales voted their conscience, this vote would be unanimous," Schumer said. "However, the president will certainly exert pressure to support the attorney general, his longtime friend. We will soon see where people's loyalties lie."

"I think it is going to be really tough," conceded a Democratic lawyer close to the process who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the resolution. "The committee needs to think about how to proceed."

The Senate Judiciary Committee has authorized but not issued subpoenas to the White House for testimony and documents about what officials there knew about the plans to fire the eight U.S. attorneys.

With Democrats so far unable to clearly establish motives for the firings, the issuance of subpoenas may be the next logical step. Of particular interest is the role of White House political strategist Karl Rove, whose fingerprints have shown up on some internal e-mails in which the dismissals were discussed.

Democrats are also expected to pursue evidence of how politics infected hiring at the department and whether the administration pushed prosecutors to file questionable voter fraud suits in battleground states that could favor Republicans.

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