Gonzales and Congress: Bad Blood
For months, Congress has pushed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to explain why seven U.S. attorneys were summarily fired last December. But Gonzales's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee today did little to clear up whether any undue political interference played into the ouster.
Instead, Gonzales's testimony showcased the growing distance between Congress and the White House over not only the firings but the functioning and credibility of the Justice Department. And that distance may only grow greater in the weeks ahead.
The congressional investigation into the firing of the U.S. attorneys has led to little clarity about why the prosecutors were fired. Instead, a series of hearings and closed-door interviews has revealed inappropriate levels of political influence in career hiring across the departmentfrom immigration judges to managers in the civil rights division to the honors program.
Though Gonzales tried to assure senators he had rewritten policies and was trying to fix the problems, senators on both sides of the aisle found his response dubious. "I don't know how you can say you can solve the problem when it appears that you are in fact the problem," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.
Gonzales's comments are only likely to bolster Democrats when the House Judiciary Committee meets Wednesday to vote on holding White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas to discuss the matter.
If the contempt resolution passes, it would then move to a vote on the full House floor. But such a resolution appears unlikely to end up in court. The decision to prosecute lies in the hands of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who has declined such cases in the past. What's more, the White House announced last week that it would bar the Justice Department from prosecuting a resolution of contempt.
But senators did not appear ready to give up. During the hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, suggested another possible vehicle for inquiry: the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Gonzales declined to offer his opinion on that prospect. He said he was recused from any decisions about legal action over contempt, which is now in the hands of Solicitor General Paul Clement.
Yet Gonzales's tight-lipped responses could lead to trouble. Senators pledged to get to the bottom of discrepancies in his congressional testimony about the classified terrorist surveillance program which directly contradicts earlier testimony from former Deputy Attorney General James Comey. They would, Specter told Gonzales, "see if your credibility has been breached to a point of being actionable."