Specter engages in sharp questioning of Attorney General Gonzales

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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Arlen Specter yesterday said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has suffered a "loss of credibility" because of the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys, but the Pennsylvania Republican declined to join the chorus of lawmakers calling for the nation's top law enforcement official to resign.

It was a small victory for the embattled Mr. Gonzales, coming on the heels of a day-long grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee that included several heated exchanges with Mr. Specter.

"I'm not going to call for your resignation," Mr. Specter said as the hearing came to a close. "I want to leave it to you and the president."

For weeks, the senator has asked his colleagues to take a patient, reasoned approach to uncovering the facts behind last year's dismissals, which some Democrats say were politically motivated. Yesterday, even Mr. Specter's patience seemed to be wearing thin.

"Do you think it is a fair, honest characterization to say that you had only a 'limited involvement' in the process?" the former Philadelphia district attorney asked with a sharp tone.

"I had knowledge that there was a process going on," Mr. Gonzales replied.

"Well, were you involved with it?" the senator shot back. "Were you involved in the process?"

Mr. Gonzales relented: "I was involved in the process."

He no longer wields the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Mr. Specter is still the committee's ranking Republican, making him a lead questioner in the investigation about whether the Justice Department mishandled the U.S. attorney firings.

Many Democrats and some Republicans have said Mr. Gonzales should resign, arguing that his inconsistent statements about the matter have created concerns about his leadership skills.

Mr. Specter called yesterday's appearance before the committee a "reconfirmation" hearing for Mr. Gonzales, a former White House counsel under President Bush and the first Hispanic to serve as attorney general.

"This is as important a hearing as I can recall, short of a confirmation hearing of a Supreme Court justice," Mr. Specter said. "In a sense, it is a 'reconfirmation' hearing."

Indeed, the event -- delayed for two days because of the tragedy at Virginia Tech -- took on the trappings of the interrogation of a Supreme Court nominee. Nearly 30 photographers lined up in front of Mr. Gonzales when he took the lone seat at a long table facing the committee. Pink-clad protesters filled the back of the room. They were joined by Cindy Sheehan, a prominent anti-war activist whose son was killed in Iraq.

Mr. Specter expressed concern about Mr. Gonzales' attempts to downplay his role in the firings, and he referenced contrary testimony from the attorney general's former chief of staff.

Mr. Gonzales often said he "didn't recall" specific details about meetings, memoranda and private conversations, irking Mr. Specter and other panel senators.

Mr. Specter noted that Mr. Gonzales attended an October meeting at the White House with one of Mr. Bush's top advisers, Karl Rove. They discussed the potential of voter fraud in New Mexico, home to former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.

"Senator, I didn't recall having a conversation with Mr. Rove. I now understand that there was a conversation between myself and the president," Mr. Gonzales said.

From the onset, their question-and-answer session was testy.

"I know you're familiar with this record," Mr. Specter told Mr. Gonzales, "because I know you've been preparing for this hearing."

"I prepare for every hearing, senator."

"Do you prepare for all your press conferences?" Mr. Specter asked, growing angry. "Were you prepared for the press conference when you said there weren't any discussions [of the attorney firings] involving you?"

"I've already said that I misspoke," Mr. Gonzales said. "It was my mistake."

The senator interrupted him: "Let's move on. I don't think you're going to win a debate about preparation, frankly."

There was laughter in the room.

"I'd like you to win this debate, Attorney General Gonzales," Mr. Specter continued, "because you're going to have to win it."

Susan Walsh, Associated Press
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., questions Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the U.S. Capitol in Washington yesterday about the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.
Click photo for larger image.

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479.


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