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Parties Gird for Fight Over AG Nominee

Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans alike hailed the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as an opportunity to move beyond confrontation and rebuild public confidence in the Department of Justice. But lines of division emerged quickly as discussions turned to finding a successor for Gonzales.

Dogged for months by investigations into his handling of the firing of several U.S. attorneys late last year and accused of lying or misleading Congress in his responses to inquiries by the Judiciary Committee, Gonzales announced his resignation Monday without offering a reason for his departure.

Senate Judiciary Democrats immediately issued a flurry of statements declaring Gonzales’ resignation a triumph. “It’s been clear for months that Alberto Gonzales’ resignation is in the best interest of the country,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) added that “since his confirmation, [Gonzales] has presided over one disastrous policy after another.” Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) said, “He should never have been confirmed and should have resigned long ago.”

Even some Republicans agreed that Gonzales’ departure was welcome. Sen. John Sununu (N.H.), who called on President Bush to fire Gonzales in March, said “our country needs a credible, effective attorney general who can work with Congress on critical issues ranging from immigration to investigating terrorism at home and abroad. Alberto Gonzales’ resignation will finally allow a new attorney general to take on this task.”

Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — who was traveling in Poland — said in a conference call with reporters that Gonzales should be commended for putting the needs of the department ahead of his personal interests by resigning, and he refused to comment on the attorney general’s troubled tenure. “He has done the right thing [by resigning] and I am going to commend him for that rather than look backward,” Specter said.

Other Republicans, including Bush, described Gonzales as a victim of a partisan witch hunt. “It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons,” Bush said.

While members of both parties called for a cooperative, bipartisan process for selecting Gonzales’ replacement, Democrats hammered at the idea that the next attorney general must be someone who is not a close ally of the White House.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), at a brief news conference in New York, said Democrats “will seek to avoid confrontation” over whomever the White House nominates, but he added that it is up to Bush to nominate someone “who is above all a professional, not a partisan, not a pal.” Kennedy said “the attorney general should be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, not an agent of the administration’s political agenda.”

But it may prove hard to find a consensus candidate. Specter said he would support the candidacy of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who as a former U.S. attorney and assistant attorney general has been rumored as a favored White House candidate to replace Gonzales. “I think he has done an excellent job on homeland security,” Specter said. “I’d be prepared to give him an A rating.”

But Schumer warned that “many of us have some doubts about Michael Chertoff.” Ralph Neas, president emeritus of the liberal group People for the American Way, said, “On the second anniversary of [Hurricane] Katrina, it’s a very interesting name to come around.” If Chertoff were the nominee, “I’m not sure that would be a swift hearing,” Neas said, given long-running criticisms about the operations of the Department of Homeland Security.

Other potential candidates whose names are being bandied about also may face hurdles in a Democratic-controlled Senate. For instance, Solicitor General Paul Clement has been tapped by Bush to become the acting attorney general upon Gonzales’ departure in mid-September, but Clement authored a June 27 memo to Bush providing the legal justification for asserting executive privilege over the testimony of former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House Director of Political Affairs Sara Taylor.

White House counsel Fred Fielding also has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but he has been the point person for the White House’s refusal to comply with Congressional subpoenas in the ongoing investigations of Gonzales.

Specter said a Member of the Senate might be a good choice, but he flatly ruled out any possibility that he would take the job.

Schumer made it clear that it was up to the administration to consult with Senate Democrats before moving forward with any nominee. “We hope the White House will come to us, will work with us,” he said.

Democratic leaders said the House and Senate Judiciary committees will continue to press their investigation of the firings of the U.S. attorneys and the roles of Gonzales and top White House officials in what they claim is an effort to politicize the Justice Department.

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