GOP Senators Join in Criticism Over Firings

Posted March 13, 2007 at 6:48pm

Several Senate Republicans expressed unhappiness with the Bush administration’s handling of the burgeoning U.S. attorneys crisis on Tuesday and did not oppose calls for top White House officials to testify before Congress.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the White House had better explain itself after revelations it helped to coordinate the firings of eight U.S. attorneys with the Justice Department.

“The whole issue now has become so convoluted that I believe it is advisable for White House officials to come forward so there is no perception of impropriety,” Specter said.

And the Pennsylvania Republican did not flat-out reject calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. But in a floor statement he urged lawmakers to “tone down the rhetoric” and called for White House officials to testify “voluntarily” instead of by way of subpoena.

“I’d like to finish these two inquiries before I make a judgment on” whether Gonzales should resign, Specter said, referring to the U.S. attorneys matter and revelations of the FBI’s use of national security letters.

Specter was joined by Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) in criticizing the administration’s handling of the prosecutors’ ouster.

Congressional Democrats released to the media Tuesday a plethora of e-mails between the Justice Department and top White House officials — primarily former White House counsel Harriet Miers — that demonstrate a long-standing and coordinated effort to dump the U.S. attorneys.

The White House previously maintained it had just signed off on a decision made by the Justice Department. But the e-mails reveal that Gonzales Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned Monday, led an effort to identify and dump U.S. attorneys deemed “weak” by the administration. The e-mails also demonstrate that significant political blowback was anticipated by Justice.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been leading the probe, on Tuesday continued to call for Gonzales’ resignation. While accepting responsibility, Gonzales signaled he would keep his job in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Gonzales essentially blamed Sampson for the imbroglio, claiming he was not privy to memos or discussions about the firings.

“Many decisions are delegated,” Gonzales defended. “Mr. Sampson was charged with directing the process to ascertain who were the weak performers.

“I regret the fact that information was not adequately shared with individuals in the Department of Justice,” Gonzales added. “Consequently, information was shared with the Congress that was incomplete.”

Republican and Democratic Senators have expressed dismay about misleading Congressional testimony from Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella. The officials argued the bulk of the attorneys were fired for performance-related reasons, but the e-mails suggest that largely political motives were at work.

Schumer and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said they would subpoena Miers, Sampson and top presidential aide Karl Rove — who the White House has admitted served as a conduit for complaints about the U.S. attorneys.

“There will be subpoenas,” Leahy said. “I’m as angry as I’ve ever been about anything.”

While many Republicans defended the administration, several GOP Senators suggested that it was treading on thin ice over the matter as there was a sense officials had not been totally straight with Congress.

“There’s obviously a problem there,” said Sessions.

Sessions said that while the administration has a right to fire the U.S. attorneys, he feels misled about the events leading up to their ouster.

“I don’t think I’ve been given a clear explanation,” Sessions said. “I’ve taken all their public statements and what they said at the hearings at face value … and I’m pretty unhappy about that.”

He said that White House and Justice Department officials are “entitled to explain themselves.”

“I think they’re going to be given that opportunity whether they like it or not,” Sessions added.

Meanwhile, Ensign held his own press conference to denounce the administration’s handling of the firing of former Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden.

“I believe a very good man has been wronged,” Ensign said.

Ensign said he was given a variety of explanations for Bogden’s dismissal, none of which rang particularly true.

“I was either misled or somebody was misinformed,” he said, referring to conversations with McNulty.

“I am calling on the president of the United States and the attorney general to restore Dan Bogden’s reputation,” Ensign pronounced, but he did not explain how that could be done.

But Ensign did not support calls for Gonzales’ dismissal and cautioned that Democrats intended to “continue to make partisan hay” out of the scandal.

However, it’s unclear how many Republicans will sign on to related legislation sponsored by Specter and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has filed for cloture, and the bill is expected to come to the floor this week.

That bill would reverse an amendment to the USA PATRIOT Act that allows the U.S. attorney general to indefinitely appoint interim U.S. attorneys. Instead, the attorney general could appoint a U.S. attorney for 120 days, after which the position would be filled by a district court judge until a permanent replacement was appointed.

But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has raised an objection and wants his own amendment to be considered. That amendment would require the president to nominate a prosecutor within 120 days and the Senate to confirm that nominee within another 120 days.