No Easy Way to Replace AG

Posted March 20, 2007 at 6:46pm

Even as a defiant President Bush was giving his embattled attorney general a public vote of confidence Tuesday, Senators and aides alike were privately preparing for upcoming hearings to consider his prospective replacement.

Bush went on the offensive Tuesday, accusing Senate Democrats of playing politics with the decision by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year, warning that the White House “will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition” and telling the nation in a televised statement that he fully supports Gonzales. “Yeah, he’s got support with me,” Bush said. Bush also said that he “strongly supports the attorney general’s decision” to fire the U.S. attorneys.

Although Democrats remained skeptical that Bush ultimately would force Gonzales to step down, Republicans privately suggested that not only will Bush likely face a tough sell of any nominee, but finding a credible candidate who would be willing to take on the short-term — and politically charged — position could be a heavy lift.

“Regardless of who they want, it’s an 18-month gig that will be a meat grinder,” said a senior GOP Senate leadership aide. “Anybody put in that spot to replace Gonzales will be an impotent, badgered and tired individual.”

Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) suggested that given the partisan clashes already erupting on Capitol Hill, any upcoming confirmation hearings could be problematic.

“I am concerned that if Gonzales were to quit — and I hope he doesn’t — that the president would have a nominee working through this for the next two years,” Cornyn said.

That seems especially likely on the heels of what would be some of the most divisive and brutal confirmation hearings Bush has faced in his six years in office. Even if the president were to tap a candidate with strong Congressional ties — such as former GOP Sens. John Danforth (Mo.), Fred Thompson (Tenn.) or Mike DeWine (Ohio) — Democrats and Republicans are promising a bitter fight ahead.

Already, many of the names being floated are dead on arrival, according to Senate Democrats. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has a share of detractors in Democratic circles, and Republicans wonder if the White House would want to take on two simultaneous confirmation battles.

Other possibilities such as former Solicitor General Ted Olson and former circuit judge and now corporate executive Michael Luttig are non-starters, Democrats say. In fact, Democratic Senate sources say, the most likely choices outside of a former Senator may be in Jim Comey, former deputy attorney general turned Lockheed Martin executive, Larry Thompson, another former deputy attorney general who now works for PepsiCo, or former Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“If this were to happen, the White House better make sure whomever they choose is on the side of the angels,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide. “They are guaranteed a very contentious confirmation battle. There are a number of issues out there that could serve as a ready platform for a stinging critique of the administration’s policies.”

A Senate Republican aide said with that in mind, it is questionable whether the White House is actually behind some of the early names being floated around the Hill as replacements. Many of the possible candidates are highly contentious and could create greater headaches for an administration interested in putting out political fires rather than fueling them.

“Most of those on the list, for a number of reasons, are improbable at best,” this aide said.

A Democratic leadership aide agreed, saying that the names thus far floated are so partisan in nature, they seem unlikely to get serious consideration in the Senate. This aide argued that “these names seem like [presidential adviser Karl] Rove’s way of saying ‘if you don’t like Alberto, look who else we have.’”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he believes pressure will continue to mount on the Hill for Gonzales to resign. He added that there’s a growing lack of confidence in the attorney general not only over the firings of the U.S. attorneys, but also because of what he characterized as a “culmination” of mishandlings by Justice Department.

Durbin said he hopes that if a replacement is ultimately sought, that the White House would “be inspired to choose someone who restores the confidence of the Justice Department.”

Asked whether the Judiciary Committee could handle hearings without partisanship, Durbin, a member of the panel, said he had no doubts: “If it comes to that, we will take our responsibility very seriously.”

And while rumors abounded across the Hill over who might be the best pick, some Senate Republicans remain unwilling to enter into any speculation whatsoever.

“I’d like to see the body cold before we talk about a replacement,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.