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AG’s Allies Are Scarce

Despite President Bush’s unwavering public support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the White House is doing little privately to lobby Republican Senators to get behind the embattled Justice Department chief, according to senior Senate sources.

In fact, Senate Republicans said Monday that the administration essentially has been absent when it comes to courting defenders for the attorney general, who has been under fire for the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. The only outreach from the executive branch so far to save Gonzales’ job, those Senate sources said, has come from the attorney general himself.

“The best thing they can do is lay low,” one GOP Senate leadership aide said of the White House.

“The problem is, you never know what’s going to come out next,” offered a second GOP Senate aide. “I don’t know how they operate, but I don’t know what their argument would be. What do you say? What is our defense? They are just lucky that more Members aren’t following [Sen. John] Sununu’s [R-N.H.] lead and calling on the guy to resign.”

Senate GOP sources say the White House faces several obstacles in trying to rally support for Gonzales on Capitol Hill. Not only has Gonzales done little over the past two years to shore up alliances in the Senate, but also Bush himself is on some shaky ground with many Senators who feel as if they already have done their fair share of heavy lifting for the administration.

“They have very few chits left and they need them,” said another Senate GOP aide. “At this point, they are choosing their battles.”

The White House consistently has defended Gonzales, even as pressure mounts under the Dome for him to step aside. Bush reiterated that support over the weekend, and in his weekly radio address said he believes the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys late last year was appropriate.

“I strongly support the attorney general in this decision,” Bush said. “I also appreciate the hard work and service of the U.S. attorneys who resigned. And I regret that their resignations have turned into a public spectacle.”

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday that while Bush’s position on Gonzales remains unchanged, the president also believes the attorney general is his own best advocate in winning over support on the Hill. He added that “the most appropriate way” to deal with the events is for Gonzales to meet directly with lawmakers, provide them with information they seek and be available to testify, as he has said he would do.

“Obviously, the president has said that the attorney general needs to go to Congress and rebuild those relationships and explain how it was carried out and why, and clear up any misconceptions,” Fratto said. “I think he’s trying to do that. It really has to be a personal thing for the attorney general.”

It remains unclear whether Gonzales will survive the political tempest that has developed over the firings. Even though just two Republican Senators have called on Gonzales to step down, few if any GOP Senators have stood up to defend the attorney general.

And some of the support Gonzales may have once had in GOP circles now seems to be softening as Justice Department documents and e-mails raise new questions over his involvement in and knowledge of the ousters. Over the weekend, several GOP Senators — including those on the Senate Judiciary Committee — raised new doubts about Gonzales candor and credibility as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

Asked on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” whether Gonzales could continue to do his job effectively, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) responded, “Well, I do not, and I think the president is going to have to make a tough choice here.”

With all of the news unfolding, a senior Republican Senate staffer said the Bush administration understands the dynamics in play and probably knows it’s difficult to “defend someone when you don’t know where the dice is going to roll.” This aide likened the current administration posture toward Gonzales to its earlier positions on beleaguered officials such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Supreme Court nominee and White House counsel Harriet Miers.

“This is standard White House operating procedure,” the aide said. “Defend one of their own for an extended period of time during which they become extremely damaged to the point where they are beyond repair. Then, choose after that period of time to remove them.”

Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the Judiciary Committee on April 17. And on Thursday, his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, will come before the panel to testify on the dismissals.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) said Sunday that he’s intent on getting to the bottom of the controversy, and while he won’t cast judgment on Gonzales prematurely, he wants answers. Specter has been helping shepherd negotiations between the Senate panel and the White House on the conditions under which senior officials such as deputy chief of staff Karl Rove would appear before the panel.

“Look, we have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful,” Specter said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And if we find he’s not been candid and truthful, that’s a very compelling reason for him not to stay on.”

Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats already have come to their own conclusions about Gonzales, and a growing number of them have asked him to resign. Late last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted the heat would continue to turn up on the Hill.

“It’s one thing after another,” Reid said. “This man has no credibility. No, I don’t think he will last. I said that some time ago.”

With Gonzales’ fate still hanging in the balance, several GOP Senate sources said Monday it is probably wise for the White House to stay at arm’s length from Republican Senators right now. It would be irresponsible for Bush to urge Senators to back Gonzales until all the facts have come out, numerous sources said.

“He knows these guys are going to say, ‘Wait a second, we don’t want to stick our neck out,’” one leadership staffer said. “He recognizes people are in that box right now and he doesn’t want to go ask people to do something they may be uncomfortable doing.”

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