Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was to be summoned to a Capitol Hill showdown Thursday as he fights to save his job in the face of calls for his ouster over the bungled firings of eight U.S. attorneys that Democrats say were driven by party politics.
The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a daylong hearing for Gonzales’ first appearance under oath since the firings set off an uproar in February that has only escalated with a bewildering series of conflicting accounts from the attorney general, his current and former aides and White House officials.
Gonzales himself has provided differing versions of the events, first saying he had almost no involvement in them and then later acknowledging that his role was larger, but only after e-mails about meetings he attended were released by the Justice Department to House and Senate committees.
President Bush has stuck by Gonzales, a longtime aide going back to Bush’s days as governor of Texas, through calls for him to resign by several Democratic lawmakers as well as a few Republicans.
Gonzales has resisted, saying in prepared testimony he has “nothing to hide” but apologizing “for my missteps that have helped to fuel the controversy.”
The Virginia Tech shooting that delayed the hearing for two days could temper the tone of the proceedings, several lawmakers said. But both Democrats and Republicans were eager to get on with the Gonzales matter.
“I think that it’s appropriate to move forward,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is leading the investigation on the Senate side.
“The sooner it’s over, the better,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose support of Gonzales is one key to the attorney general’s fate.
Republicans have urged Gonzales to be more assertive and answer the questions more specifically than he did in his prepared testimony, which was released by the Justice Department on Sunday in anticipation that the hearing would be held Tuesday.
“I hope he doesn’t apologize,” said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who spoke with Gonzales a week ago. “He is in a really miserable position where people are focused and saying nasty things. He thinks that he acted appropriately. I told him he ought to be less gracious in his responses.”
Said Hatch: “If he just answers the questions, he’ll be fine.”
Gonzales’ own statements could complicate his task. On style and substance, he is famously mild-mannered and loyal to Bush.
Democrats say that’s just the problem: Gonzales may have led the Justice Department as if still Bush’s White House counsel, thus allowing his cadre of young-but-senior aides to make decisions on which of the nation’s 93 federal prosecutors should be fired, and why.
Critics allege that some of the eight fired were dismissed to interfere with ongoing corruption investigations in ways that might help Republicans. Gonzales strongly denies that, but Democrats have maintained that a stiff denial is insufficient without more details.
Some Republicans acknowledge that merely sticking to the talking points in Gonzales’ prepared testimony will make it hard for him to hang onto his job. The committee’s senior Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, dismissed the prepared remarks as “pablum.”
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