Even with his credibility at new lows and Democrats eyeing a possible vote of no confidence against him, Senators in both parties acknowledged Tuesday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may ultimately survive the scandal over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
Many Democratic and Republican Senators privately and publicly conceded that while they previously believed Gonzales’ days were numbered at the Justice Department, they are rethinking his longevity given renewed backing by President Bush and his own staunch refusal to step aside. If Gonzales has endured mounting criticism, calls for his resignation and lackluster testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the beleaguered attorney general may be indestructible, they argued.
“It sounds to me like he’s going to stay,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a Bush ally and vice chairman of the Republican Conference.
“I would have thought that he couldn’t” survive, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. “But maybe the White House is looking [at having only] 20 months left. I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance he’ll stay. But he really should step down.”
With that in mind, Senate Democrats are considering ways to turn up the heat on Gonzales and admonish him for his management of the department and allegations that the U.S. attorneys were fired last year for political reasons. Senate Democratic leaders, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), said they are weighing their options, including bringing a resolution to the floor declaring that the Senate has no confidence in Gonzales’ leadership.
“It’s certainly something we are looking at,” Schumer said.
Schumer, who as a member of the Judiciary Committee has helped lead the Democrats’ inquiry of Gonzales, said Judiciary panel Democrats and the rest of the Caucus will need to come together to decide their next move. That will determine “whether we go forward with it,” Schumer said.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also a member of the Judiciary panel, suggested that at this point Gonzales is so embattled and ineffective it may not be necessary for Senators to take a no-confidence vote. But, Durbin said he had little doubt that if such a vote were held, more than 60 Senators would align to voice their dissatisfaction with his stewardship of the Justice Department.
“Count the noses … he has lost the confidence of Congress and the American people,” Durbin said.
And while few Republicans were rising to Gonzales’ defense, they were quick to push back against a possible floor vote on the attorney general, threatening to respond with a no-confidence vote of their own against Reid over his statements on the Iraq War. Reid recently said he believes the war is “lost” and that President Bush is in a “state of denial” over the conflict.
“Once you start ratcheting up blatant political moves, that leads to others,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “We won’t let that stand without an appropriate counter.”
Confidence votes aside, House and Senate Democrats are still seeking key documents from the Justice Department and the White House on the matter. Both chambers also are considering issuing subpoenas for the testimony of top presidential adviser Karl Rove and ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers. Negotiations between Democrats and the White House on documents and witnesses so far have not borne fruit.
Many lawmakers say Gonzales has done little to help his own cause, especially after his testimony at the hearing Thursday during which he pleaded ignorance more than 50 times to key details about the prosecutor firings. Notably, Gonzales testified he could not remember a key Nov. 27 meeting in which the final plan to dismiss the prosecutors was approved.
Gonzales laid most of the blame for the controversial ousters on his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who he said was charged with consulting senior staff and finding consensus on who should be dumped. Sampson testified before the panel earlier this month, often contradicting Gonzales’ previous statements about the dismissals.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans were forgiving of Gonzales during last week’s testimony, and many remained wary Tuesday that the attorney general can do the job even if he stays on.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said many Republican Senators were “uncomfortable” with telling the president how he should deal with the matter. And while Graham said Gonzales hasn’t done anything illegal, he questioned whether the attorney general can still be politically effective.
“Can he sell the agenda?” Graham, a Judiciary Committee member, asked. “Can he come up here and get people to listen? I like him personally … but he does have an image problem.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was incredulous at Gonzales’ memory lapses at last week’s hearing, wondered whether survival was an option. He said Gonzales should “think about what’s best for the Department of Justice.”
“I think his statements right now might not be the final decision as time goes by,” he said carefully. “He’s got a difficult challenge ahead if he stays. Maybe he can do this.”
In the near term at least, Gonzales seems to be holding firm, and Bush continues to voice confidence in his longtime Texas loyalist. Republican Senators — many of whom refused to handicap his survival — reiterated Tuesday that his fate remains in Bush’s hands.
“He seems to enjoy the confidence of the president and that’s who he works for,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Several key Republican sources acknowledged that no matter what the outcome, Gonzales may never be able to fully repair the damage on Capitol Hill with less than two years remaining in Bush’s tenure.
But they argued that the White House officials may feel it is better off to have him stay rather than engage in a potentially bitter standoff with the Democratic Senate over a possible successor.
Gonzales also has the benefit of being embroiled in a relatively obscure controversy — esoteric to most Americans — unlike those faced by previously embattled Bush appointees such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and ex-Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown.
“The worst is over,” a Senate Republican leadership aide said of Gonzales’ situation.
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), one of the first Republicans to call for Gonzales’ resignation, said at least at this point, it does appear that “all the shoes have dropped” for Gonzales. But even if that’s the case, Gonzales still has some face-saving to do.
“He needs to remediate his standing with the Senate,” Smith said. “It will require an extra competent effort.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.