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U.S. Attorneys Bill Still Faces GOP Opposition

Correction Appended

Despite White House approval, at least one Republican Senator still intends to object to a plan to limit Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ power to appoint interim prosecutors.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday “hotlined,” or put on the fast track, legislation that would reverse an amendment to the USA PATRIOT Act giving the attorney general the power to indefinitely appoint U.S. attorneys. If all 100 Senators sign off, it could then be brought to the floor by unanimous consent. But the strategy also could be a way of ferreting out and dealing with any objections.

“Sen. Reid intends to push for passage of this bill as quickly as possible,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman.

The bill was sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and would allow the attorney general to appoint an interim prosecutor for 120 days; after that, a district court judge would fill the slot until the department named a permanent replacement.

But at least one GOP leader — Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) — is expected to object to the measure in one form or another. A member of the Judiciary Committee, Kyl has expressed strong objections to the legislation, which would allow district court judges to appoint prosecutors until the Justice Department arrived at a permanent replacement.

In an interview Friday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was not certain whether he supported the legislation, but that he expected the Senate to approve it now that it has the White House stamp of approval.

“It’s pretty clear that this whole controversy results from a series of not very well-handled personnel issues,” McConnell told Roll Call.

But he added, “I have a philosophical preference for U.S. attorneys being a part of an administration.”

Backing down from an earlier stance, Gonzales last week said he would not object to the legislation after a stinging fight with Senate Democrats over the mass firings of at least seven prosecutors who gave explosive testimony last week before the House and Senate. After a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee members late Thursday, Gonzales said he would no longer object to limiting his authority to appoint prosecutors and would make five senior Justice Department officials available for questioning by Senators.

McConnell also defended Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who was accused by one of the fired U.S. attorneys last week of making a threatening phone call regarding a criminal corruption probe.

“Sen. Domenici is an icon,” McConnell said. “I believe he’s going to run for re-election.”

Even though Senate Democrats may ultimately get their way on the legislation, a senior Republican aide said GOP lawmakers are seething about the way the administration dealt with situation.

Specter, Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) all have publicly criticized how the administration has handled the firings. And Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) decried the way that Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden was fired.

“Republicans believe that the administration has completely bungled the handling of the situation, and it is unfortunate that Senate Republicans have to come to their rescue,” said the aide.

“It’s obnoxious and frustrating when they’re mistreated in such a way that creates a giant mess,” the aide added.

Last week’s meeting with Gonzales also headed off plans by Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), to subpoena five Justice Department staffers. The Justice Department agreed to make the officials available, but it is unclear when and whether it will be in a public or private setting.

The officials include: Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff; Monica Goodling, Gonzales’ counsel and the department’s White House liaison; Bill Mercer, the acting associate attorney general and the No. 3 official in the department; Mike Battle, the outgoing director of Justice’s executive office of U.S. attorneys; and Mike Elston, the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general.

Several of the U.S. attorneys who testified before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday said Battle informed them of Justice’s decision to terminate their jobs. Former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias said Battle told him he did not know why Iglesias was fired but that the decision came “from on high,” which Iglesias interpreted as either from Gonzales or the White House counsel’s office.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, also are demanding information from Justice Department and White House officials.

Conyers and Sánchez wrote a March 8 letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding demanding communications between Justice Department and White House officials, communications between the White House and Members of Congress who may have known in advance of the planned firings, and interviews with “White House officials with knowledge of this matter,” including deputy White House counsel William Kennedy.

They also wrote a letter to former White House counsel Harriet Miers — who was in charge of that office at the time of the firings — asking to interview her “voluntarily.”

Conyers and Sánchez also have demanded that the same five Justice Department officials testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Republicans claim that the seven U.S. attorneys were mainly fired for job performance-related reasons. But Democrats call this bogus and say they were ousted to make room for political friends, or perhaps under pressure from lawmakers.

Correction: March 12, 2007

A March 12 story, “U.S. Attorneys Bill Still Faces GOP Opposition,” incorrectly stated that Senate Democrats led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had planned to subpoena five Judiciary Committee staffers. They actually planned to subpoena five top staffers from the Justice Department.

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