The top Republican on the Senate committee investigating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Sunday he believes Gonzales could step down before a no-confidence vote sought this week by Senate Democrats.
Gonzales failed to draw a public statement of support from Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. Asked whether Gonzales effectively can lead the Justice Department, McConnell said "that's for the president to decide." The senator suggested there may be several resolutions introduced to dilute a no-confidence vote.
"In the Senate, nobody gets a clear shot," said McConnell, R-Ky.
Yet Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believed a "sizable number" of GOP lawmakers would join Democrats in expressing their lack of confidence in the attorney general.
Five Republicans have urged Gonzales to resign over his firing of federal prosecutors, while several other Republicans have expressed criticism of his actions.
"Votes of no confidence are very rare," Specter said. "Historically, that is something which Attorney General Gonzales would like to avoid. I think that if and when he sees that coming, he would prefer to avoid that kind of a historical black mark."
The White House has called the upcoming vote a "political stunt" and said Gonzales retains President Bush's confidence.
Specter long has made it clear he believed the Justice Department no longer functioned well because of Gonzales' handling of the prosecutor firings and that as a result Gonzales would step down.
But Specter's comments Sunday raised the pressure on Gonzales and Bush, who has indicated Gonzales would not be leaving anytime soon.
Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California said they will seek a vote on a nonbinding resolution as early as this week to express what senators of both parties have said for weeks: that Gonzales has become too weakened to run the department.
A no-confidence vote, though symbolic, probably would create trouble for Gonzales. Any attorney general needs to work with Congress on legislation, as well as nominees who require Senate confirmation. Gonzales would need to confirm a new deputy attorney general because his current one, Paul McNulty, is leaving over the firings of federal prosecutors.
Gonzales will be in Europe next week, visiting his counterparts in Hungary and Switzerland before joining a conference of leading industrial nations Thursday in Germany. He will be back in Washington on Friday â€” the night before the long Memorial Day weekend and a planned congressional vacation.
Specter and other senators said they were particularly troubled by testimony last week that Gonzales, when he was Bush's White House counsel, pressured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of Bush's controversial eavesdropping program while Ashcroft was in intensive care.
In his testimony, former deputy attorney general James Comey said he thought the no-warrant program was questionable and violated the law. Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andy Card then headed to Ashcroft's sick bed at George Washington University Hospital in an unsuccessful bid to convince Ashcroft otherwise. The program was eventually certified after it was modified.
On Sunday, Schumer sent a letter to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, asking if they personally ordered Gonzales to Ashcroft's hospital room. When asked twice by reporters last week, Bush refused to answer.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he did not believe that Gonzales acted illegally. If Bush chooses to support Gonzales, then senators should work on passing legislation such as immigration reform rather than playing "gotcha" games, said Graham, R-S.C.
"I want to focus on that, rather than pass a resolution, that's never been done in the history of the Congress, to play 'gotcha' politics with the attorney general," he said.
Specter appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," McConnell spoke on ABC's "This Week," and Graham was on "Fox News Sunday."