By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Senate yesterday rejected a bid to conduct a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as Republicans declined to defend the embattled presidential confidant but rejected the effort as a political stunt.
On a 53 to 38 roll call, Democrats fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture and begin the debate on a resolution condemning Gonzales. Seven Republicans broke with the administration and refused to support the attorney general.
Democrats had hoped their one-sentence, nonbinding resolution would be a step toward forcing Gonzales, under siege for the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year, to resign.
But Gonzales again vowed to stay in office through the remainder of President Bush's term, despite intense congressional scrutiny of the prosecutor firings and alleged politicization of other divisions in the Justice Department on his watch.
Democrats were aware that victory on the vote was unlikely, but they claimed a symbolic triumph in getting more than a handful of Republicans to join the effort to publicly shame the attorney general.
"We think we made another step forward. . . . He's not immune to persuasion," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the author of the resolution.
The scandal grew out of the U.S. attorneys' firings and the multiple explanations provided for them, some of which have been contradicted by internal documents, public testimony from former aides and private interviews with current Justice officials.
Four members of Gonzales's inner circle have resigned or have announced their intention to resign. The department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility are examining whether laws were broken in the allegedly politicized hiring of career prosecutors and immigration judges.
While the probes continue on Capitol Hill -- a House panel is set to announce another key hearing today -- Democrats moved yesterday to debate their no-confidence resolution, an effort for which chamber historians could find no parallel in Senate history. While a no-confidence vote, more common in parliamentary systems, is not provided for under congressional rules, Congress has the authority to impeach Cabinet officials.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has no plans to vote on a similar resolution in the House, although such a measure was offered last month by two junior Democrats, according to advisers.
Instead of defending Gonzales, a longtime friend of the president's from Texas, Republicans in the Senate attacked the resolution as political and designed to embarrass Gonzales and GOP senators.
"It'll be a 'gotcha' 30-second commercial," Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, predicted for those Republicans who voted to block cloture.
Citing his deep-seated opposition to Gonzales, Specter supported the resolution while at the same time encouraging fellow Republicans to oppose it because of "outright political chicanery."
Some Republicans rejected the measure as a relic of the British parliamentary system. "Is this what the business of the Senate is really about, a nonbinding, irrelevant resolution?" Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) asked, complaining that Democrats should not have given up last week on a bipartisan immigration bill. "Maybe we should be calling for a vote of no confidence in the Senate."
A top Gonzales aide sounded the same theme in the attorney general's declaration that he would stay put.
"With so many pressing issues facing our country, such as the threat of terrorism and the danger posed by gangs and violent criminals, we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to identify appropriate solutions to address these issues," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman.
Five of the seven GOP votes against Gonzales came from senators who had already publicly called for his resignation, with Specter and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) officially calling for his removal for the first time. Four of the GOP senators face elections next year in potentially difficult races, something Republicans said was an ulterior motive for Schumer.
Joining Specter and Collins were Sens. John E. Sununu (N.H.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) attacked Schumer's role as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, citing its fundraising missives that have highlighted the investigation into the prosecutor firings as evidence of Democratic politicization of the probe.
"I also can't understand why my friend should not at least recuse himself from the official investigation of the Justice Department that he himself has been leading," McConnell said of Schumer.
One Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), who has been asked to preserve records in connection with a widening Justice Department investigation examining his son and other current and former Alaska lawmakers, voted "present." Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) voted against debating the resolution.
Despite yesterday's reprieve, Gonzales is still under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who has said that top Gonzales aides did not provide him full information before he delivered misleading testimony to the Senate in February, is now slated to testify publicly before a House Judiciary subcommittee on June 19, an aide said yesterday.
Last month, Monica M. Goodling, Gonzales's former counsel, testified that McNulty was not "fully candid" in private remarks about his knowledge of White House involvement in the firings.
More than 20 current and former officials from the White House and the Justice Department have been subpoenaed in the investigations, with Bush refusing to allow his West Wing advisers to testify or to turn over any internal documents.