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Vote Delayed on Immunity for Goodling

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to grant immunity to a former Justice Department official, in part to await Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) agreed to Republican requests to delay for a week a vote on whether to grant immunity to Monica Goodling — the former liaison between the Justice Department and the White House — and compel her testimony before the committee.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee’s ranking member, said, “We need to, I think, wait and see what the AG might say tomorrow” before deciding on the Goodling immunity, though he added that “unless something unforeseen occurs during the course of the next week, I would expect us to be able to move forward on this matter next week.”

Conyers said Goodling “was among a small group of senior Justice Department lawyers who prepared Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella for their Congressional testimony earlier this year regarding the U.S. attorney terminations — during which I believe that they inaccurately indicted that White House involvement in the U.S. attorney terminations was minimal.”

Despite the delay, Conyers continues to move forward with his investigation, preparing for the possibility of taking public testimony from witnesses, perhaps including the attorney general at a later date. House and Senate staff met again with former Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson on Wednesday, continuing questioning that began on Sunday, according to a committee spokeswoman.

Committee staff also are negotiating with the Justice Department in an attempt to schedule additional interviews with McNulty and Moschella.

Gonzales and McNulty have both recused themselves from the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of the matter, and Solicitor General Paul Clement is now “supervising” the probe, according to acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling. In an April 6 letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and committee member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Hertling explained that following normal succession rules for the department, the solicitor general becomes the acting attorney general for the investigation, which is being carried out by the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of the Inspector General.

Judith Schaeffer, legal director of People for the American Way, pointed out that the solicitor general also is a political appointee and may not be the appropriate choice to lead an independent investigation. “He’s not a prosecutor and not an investigator,” Schaeffer said, adding that he should not be overseeing the work of the inspector general.

But Benjamin Wittes, a guest legal scholar at the Brookings Institution, said “the role of the solicitor general supervising something like this is really just to receive the results of the investigation and not to play any kind of active part in it.”

Wittes noted that Clement worked on Capitol Hill previously in his career and said he suspected that Democrats would be comfortable with his role in the investigations. “I would be surprised if they weren’t relieved to know that the political person who is supervising all this is Paul Clement,” Wittes said. “Many Hill Democrats know him from when he worked on the Hill, and his career in the administration has never given them cause to doubt his good faith, and I’ve seen no indication that they do.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed confidence in Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine’s ability to internally review the prosecutor scandal, despite the fact it is taking place inside the Justice Department. “I think the inspector general for the Justice Department is a really straight shooter,” Feinstein said. “I would trust him to take a look” at the matter.

Justice Department officials did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on Clement’s role.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats set the bar high on Wednesday for what is expected to be a marathon hearing that could determine whether Gonzales has enough political support to hang onto his job.

“The burden of proof is now on the attorney general,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Democrats continued to point to contradictions between why the prosecutors were fired and what Justice Department officials have said about the matter.

“We don’t have a clear picture of why the U.S. attorneys were fired,” Schumer said at a Wednesday press conference.

Schumer raised yet another point of interest for Democrats to pursue today. He said that Mike Battle, the former head of the office that supervised U.S. attorneys, told Senate investigators during a private interview that a memo penned by Sampson describing the plan to oust the prosecutors was distributed at a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting at which Gonzales was present. Gonzales has specifically denied seeing any memos on the matter.

At the hearing today, Leahy and Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will give five-minute opening statements, followed by two-minute opening statements by their committee colleagues and an approximately five-minute opening statement by Gonzales. That will be followed by likely endless rounds of questioning for Gonzales on a wide range of subjects.

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