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Senate bars vote against Gonzales

Democrats sought to declare no confidence in the attorney general but couldn't end debate.

June 12, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales survived a climactic no-confidence vote in the Senate Monday, and with the support of the White House appeared to have weathered a months-long storm of criticism and investigation that once imperiled his tenure at the Justice Department.

Most Republicans, even those who had been critical of Gonzales, closed ranks, and Democrats fell well short of winning the votes necessary to move forward with a resolution declaring that the Senate and the "American people" had lost confidence in the embattled attorney general. Senate Democrats' attempt to bring up the resolution got 53 of the 60 votes needed to end unlimited debate.

Democrats vowed to continue their investigation into whether Gonzales, in tandem with the White House, had politicized hiring decisions and various investigations at the Justice Department in ways that would boost Republicans. There were signs that Democrats were on the verge of taking that investigation to a new level, possibly by issuing subpoenas to the White House for documents and testimony of such figures as political operative Karl Rove.

But the no-confidence vote suggests that the Democrats do not have the political might to force the issue.

Gonzales had already won a vote of confidence from President Bush weeks ago. "There is only one vote that matters, and he's got it," said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant with ties to the White House.

Supporters of a similar resolution in the House said they feared that, after the Senate vote, the House leadership would table the measure without voting on it.

"My sense based on initial discussions with leaders is that they are not likely to bring this to the floor" without the Senate's acting first, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said in an interview. The former prosecutor said he thought the leaders were mistaken --the House is a significant body in its own right, not burdened with some of the Senate's procedural traditions of cloture and filibuster, he noted.

The Justice Department issued a statement after the vote declaring that Gonzales "remains focused on the important issues that the American people expect him to address."

Observing that his term expires with Bush's in 18 months, Gonzales told reporters Monday in Miami that he was planning on "sprinting to the finish line" with a full agenda of initiatives.

"The department is not going to stumble nor crawl to the finish line," Gonzales said after speaking at a terrorism conference.

Hours before the debate, Bush, winding up a European tour before returning to Washington, dismissed the vote as a "meaningless resolution" that would not chase his attorney general -- and longtime friend and advisor -- from office.

How effective Gonzales can be for the balance of the Bush presidency is far from clear. With Democrats holding the purse strings, it is unlikely that Congress will support major new Justice Department initiatives.

Another department priority, a major new anti-crime bill, also seems problematic. Among other goals, the legislation attempts to revive a series of mandatory sentencing guidelines for criminals, which Democrats had doubts about even before Gonzales' problems became a focus.

The investigation exposed what lawmakers view as serious credibility problems with Gonzales and raised questions about management of the department.

Beginning with the politically charged firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, the probe has expanded to include whether politics infected the hiring of career employees throughout the department, including its civil rights division. Investigators also are examining whether there was a conscious effort to pursue cases of vote fraud that could benefit Republicans in battleground states. The Justice Department has also launched an internal review into whether regulations and civil-service laws were broken.

Gonzales, who once wrote off the U.S. attorney affair as an "overblown personnel matter," has acknowledged that he made incomplete statements.

Although he plans to stay, four other officials, including his former chief of staff and senior counselor, have resigned.

In two hours of debate Monday, few Republicans offered an outright endorsement of the attorney general. Rather, they cast the no-confidence vote as a Democratic political ploy that took valuable time away from debate over issues of import to ordinary citizens, such as immigration and gasoline prices.

"Is this what the business of the Senate is really about? A nonbinding resolution proving what? Nothing," said Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "That is not our job. We don't have the authority to make that determination. This is all about partisan politics."

But Democrats said that the Justice Department had lost its way under Gonzales, and that he had lost credibility with Congress and the public.

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