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Gonzales Yields On Hiring Interim U.S. Attorneys

Emerging from what participants called a "frank" discussion, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the attorney general agreed to allow five senior Justice Department aides to be interviewed by the committee in an inquiry that will probably begin in a private setting. Schumer said the committee will also consider whether to hold public hearings at which the aides would testify about their roles in the firings. Schumer said the decision makes it unnecessary for Democrats to pursue subpoenas to compel testimony from the aides, including Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and the top aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty.

That aide, Michael J. Elston, had a phone conversation with one of the ousted U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, shortly after a Feb. 18 article on the firings appeared in The Washington Post. According to Cummins's testimony earlier this week, the conversation with Elston ended with a brief exchange in which the Justice aide appeared to threaten Cummins and the other former U.S. attorneys who were on the verge of agreeing to testify before the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Specter emerged from the meeting saying he still had no clear understanding why the prosecutors were dismissed. He said he instructed Gonzales to take back remarks he made in an op-ed in Wednesday's USA Today, in which he called the issue an "overblown personnel matter." Specter also asked Gonzales to do something to help remove the "significant blemish" now on the records of the fired prosecutors.

The House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Gonzales yesterday requesting testimony from the same five officials and demanding copies of all documents related to the firings.

No agreement has been reached between Gonzales and lawmakers on what documents will be turned over to Capitol Hill in relation to the firings.

At least one administration official, presidential adviser Karl Rove, stood by several stances that the Justice Department has now backed away from. He defended the firings in an appearance at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock as "normal and ordinary" and compared them to decisions by President Bill Clinton and Bush to remove nearly all federal prosecutors after taking office.

However, the anger among Republicans about the handling continued to grow. One GOP leader, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), told his hometown newspaper that he remains furious over the firing of Daniel Bogden, who was U.S. attorney for Nevada, questioning whether Justice Department officials have been straight with him in explaining the dismissal.

"I can't even tell you how upset I am at the Justice Department," Ensign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report from Little Rock.

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