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Democrats’ AG Vote Falls Short

After a short but testy debate in which Republicans attacked their motives, Senate Democrats came up short — 53-38 — Monday evening in their bid to open debate on a no-confidence motion on embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Seven Republicans — Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), John Sununu (N.H.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — voted for the motion to proceed to debate on the nonbinding no-confidence resolution.

Every Democrat present voted to invoke cloture. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) voted against cloture. Eight lawmakers were absent, including three Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.). Two GOP Senators who have called for Gonzales’ resignation — Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) — also were no-shows. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) voted present.

The mere scheduling of the vote was a political embarrassment for Gonzales and the White House, despite the fact it was defeated. Gonzales has been at the center of a relentless investigation into the Justice Department’s ouster of nine federal prosecutors in 2006 in what Democrats believe involved improper political motives. There has not been a similar no-confidence vote in Senate history.

But Republicans called the vote a political stunt. Before the vote Monday, President Bush dubbed the Senate maneuver meaningless and continued to stick by Gonzales.

The defeat of the no-confidence motion was not unexpected and Democrats pledged Monday that the probe would move forward on a variety of fronts, including testimony June 19 before the House Judiciary Committee by outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Democrats also must decide whether to engage in a battle over subpoenas with the White House.

Senate Republicans used their floor time Monday night to attack the motion’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). They invoked Schumer’s use of a conflict-of-interest charge against his 1998 campaign foe, then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.). As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, D’Amato headed the probe into the Whitewater land dealings of then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Democrats compared D’Amato’s dual hats with Schumer’s two roles as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and as the lead investigator in the prosecutors scandal.

“How times change,” chided Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calling on Schumer to recuse himself from the probe. “I can’t understand why it isn’t a conflict of interest for my friend from New York.”

“This is not the British Parliament. This is not our job,” added Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “Nobody is fooled by them trying to put some people on the hot spot.”

Schumer’s colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), came to his defense. But Schumer chose not to respond to the charges and instead noted that no Republicans had “uttered the words ‘we have faith in Attorney General Gonzales.’”

“They know the attorney general has failed miserably in his job,” Schumer said. “They can’t defend him. They seek diversions. We will not be diverted.”

Reid called on Gonzales to step down and said the attorney general was “profoundly unworthy” of holding a top Cabinet post.

Monday’s defeat does not mean Congressional Democrats are done with their aggressive, wide-ranging probe into the prosecutor scandal that has dogged Gonzales’ Justice Department since January.

“The Judiciary Committee has unearthed troubling evidence about the White House’s role in manipulating the Department of Justice into its own political arm and will continue in its pursuit of this matter,” said one senior Democratic aide.

The next major battle front could be a decision whether to issue subpoenas to top presidential aide Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Frustrated that they have not received adequate answers from Justice officials as to who compiled the hit list of U.S. attorneys to be ousted, lawmakers believe the answers lie in more powerful political hands.

White House counsel Fred Fielding has offered to allow Rove and Miers to testify privately, not under oath and without a transcript. But those terms are unacceptable to Democrats and they may choose to issue the subpoenas instead. But Democrats are conscious that such a move would likely lead to a lengthy legal battle.

In the House, McNulty will testify before the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, chaired by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), on June 19. McNulty claims that misinformation about why nine federal prosecutors were ousted in 2006 led him to give misleading Congressional testimony.

And in the Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to consider an “executive nomination” on June 26 that will focus on William Mercer, the acting associate attorney general who was involved in the prosecutor purge. Mercer also has attracted criticism because he also serves as U.S. attorney for Montana, though he has been largely absent from that state for the past two years.

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