Senate to Pass Prosecutor Bill

Posted March 19, 2007 at 6:31pm

The Senate is poised to pass legislation today stripping President Bush’s authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys, and Democrats already have begun using the scandal over the firing of eight prosecutors last year in fundraising letters and as a political tool, while the GOP struggles to find an effective counter message.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) recently added a link to a petition calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign to a prominent space on her Web site. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also called on Gonzales to step down.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently sent an e-mail to supporters focusing on allegations that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) played a role in the ouster of former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. In the e-mail, DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch notes that “New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici — who is up for re-election in 2008 — is now facing a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and a possible obstruction of justice review for improper contact with a United States attorney.”

Poersch goes on to question Domenici’s responses to questions about his role in the firing, adding that “Sen. Domenici has retained the same lawyer who defended disgraced Congressman Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham — yet another sign the Senator knows he is in serious trouble. Sen. Domenici owes the people of New Mexico the unmitigated truth. So far, he has been less than forthcoming and has given his constituents every reason to question his honesty and his fitness to be a United States Senator.”

Republicans were quick to question the appropriateness of the e-mail, pointing out that Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who serves as Democratic Caucus vice chairman and DSCC chairman, is heading up the Senate’s investigation of the firings. Although Schumer serves on the Judiciary Committee, he is not the chairman, and Democratic leadership aides have in the past said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Schumer to lead the investigation.

“While it certainly seems convenient that Chuck Schumer was handed the gavel to attack the administration and at the same time used the issue for political fodder in the DSCC’s direct-mail shop, last time we checked he was not up in 2008 and we are not running a campaign against him,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher.

Over the past week, a number of GOP Senators — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) — have openly charged that Schumer has a conflict of interest. In comments over the weekend on Fox News, Specter pointed out that “the day after we have testimony about Senator Domenici, he puts his name up on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, criticizing or really making the argument that he ought not to be re-elected.”

Specter added, “Now, I think that the inquiry by the Judiciary Committee ought to have at least a modicum of objectivity, and if Mr. Schumer is doing a job to defeat Senator Domenici, which he is now — that’s his job as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee — that he puts it up on their Web site the very next day, and then he has made very conclusory and judgmental statements all along. … I don’t think he can do both things at the same time without having a conflict of interest, but that’s up for him to decide.”

And while GOP lawmakers are expected to continue making similar charges against Schumer and the broader inquiry, Republicans acknowledge they have taken a beating on the issue. “We just haven’t gotten any traction,” one senior Republican aide lamented Monday. Additionally, while a leadership aide said it was unlikely that any Republican lawmakers would seek an investigation into Schumer by the Ethics Committee, there has been some discussion among the GOP’s interest-group allies off the Hill about filing a complaint.

Meanwhile, aides in both camps said neither party sees an advantage in slow-walking the U.S. attorneys bill and predicted it will pass the Senate with a bulk of lawmakers in both parties supporting it. Although Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have offered amendments that would continue to give President Bush some control over appointing U.S. attorneys, the bill is expected to pass almost completely intact. At press time it was unclear when the House would take up a companion measure.

However, even after the bill passes, the issue is not expected to die. While it has yet to resonate very loudly outside of the Beltway, Democrats are looking to nationalize the issue and tie it into their broader running critique of the White House as unethical and Congressional Republicans as poor watchdogs.

And Democrats — including the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees — are keeping up the pressure to compel White House adviser Karl Rove to testify on the firings. White House Counsel Fred Fielding is expected to be back on the Hill today to discuss that issue with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.).

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.