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Capitol Grilling for Gonzales

Senate Democrats will aggressively press Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about his involvement in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys when the embattled Bush administration official comes to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Democrats will concentrate on the timeline of events leading up to the explosive dismissals and inconsistencies between Gonzales’ words and March 29 testimony by his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

“There’s a desire to get to the truth and clear up the conflicts that exist,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “Whether or not the attorney general was involved in the firing of U.S. attorneys … that’s one of the largest questions looming as we go into Tuesday.”

But the contradictions go beyond the differences between Sampson’s and Gonzales’ recollections, Democratic aides argued. “It’s more than just the attorney general versus his former aide,” said another Senate Democratic staffer.

One prominent new problem for Gonzales was revealed Friday in a slew of documents released by the Justice Department. Seemingly contrary to Sampson’s testimony, Sampson wrote ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers about possible replacement candidates for five of the soon-to-be-ousted U.S. attorneys nearly a year before they were fired. On March 29, Sampson told Senators he was unaware of specific replacement candidates on Dec. 7, 2006, the day that seven of the prosecutors were fired.

“The contradictions continue to pile up. The questions for the attorney general continue to mount,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been spearheading the probe and called Sampson’s testimony “lawyerly.”

In preparation for Tuesday, Schumer sent an April 12 letter to Gonzales that listed 10 questions he expected Gonzales to answer at the hearing. Many of them focus on White House aide Karl Rove’s involvement in the firings, despite statements to the contrary by Gonzales.

“It’s not just Karl Rove, it’s the White House,” Schumer said, arguing that if Gonzales was not behind the firings, as the attorney general has maintained, then the culprit likely is to rank higher up in the political food chain.

Furthermore, a handwritten note sandwiched between e-mails from former White House counsel Monica Goodling — who resigned after announcing she would assert her Fifth Amendment rights in the probe — suggests a reason for firing New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias.

The note says: Sen. Pete “Domenici (R-N.M.) says he doesn’t move cases.”

Iglesias has testified before Congress that Domenici called him in October 2006 to ask him about the status of a corruption case focusing on local Democrats. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating.

Senate GOP and Democratic aides said Friday that Gonzales’ appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday likely would determine whether he will be able to hang onto his job for the near future.

Several lawmakers, including some Republicans, have called for Gonzales’ dismissal as the scandal has unfolded. But President Bush continues to insist he has confidence in the former White House counsel.

“This is the attorney general’s chance to redeem himself,” said a Democratic aide. “His status at the Justice Department, his status as the attorney general could be determined by the hearing.”

Gonzales can’t necessarily count on staunch GOP support as Congressional Republicans have tired at what they see as administration bungling over a needlessly distracting scandal. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, has suggested the attorney general may even want to apologize to the American people and the ousted federal prosecutors at the start of the hearing.

“He does need to clear up what are apparent discrepancies between what he said and what others have said,” added Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a Judiciary Committee member and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

But Kyl cautioned that Democrats have been leaping to conclusions about the reasons for the firings.

“While the whole thing may have been handled in a clumsy way, it wasn’t done for a nefarious purpose,” he said.

“Sen. [Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa) has said he won’t make a decision until after the hearing about whether [Gonzales] should stay or should go,” said an aide to the Senator, who also serves on Judiciary. But the aide added that Gonzales “has a lot of explaining to do.”

Meanwhile, two lawyers at the law firm Deloitte & Touche who originally were approached to assist the House Judiciary Committee as outside counsels in the U.S. attorneys investigation have turned down the assignment, a spokesman for the firm said last week. “We declined this engagement,” said Jeffrey Zack, who declined to comment further.

The attorneys originally mentioned were Michael Zeldin and David Gilles. A spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee referred questions to Irvin Nathan, a partner at Arnold & Porter who is the principal attorney contracted out by Judiciary.

The spokeswoman said Nathan would decide whether to subcontract additional legal work to other attorneys. Nathan did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats also intend to explore why they originally were told by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty that the firings were “performance related” when performance evaluations of the prosecutors gave them favorable reviews. They also are expected to ask why they continue to receive edited documents from the Justice Department as well as incomplete information.

But in an April 12 letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), White House counsel Fred Fielding said the White House was sticking by its “unified offer” to turn over select documents to Congress and allow Rove and Miers to testify privately without transcripts.

The House Judiciary Committee last week subpoenaed the documents it is seeking in the first legal action of the case. The Senate Judiciary Committee authorized subpoenas for documents and some witnesses but has not actually issued any subpoenas.

Hoping to survive, Gonzales has spent the past few weeks preparing for his testimony with the help of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and ex-Gonzales aide Timothy Flanigan.

Susan Davis and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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