The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday cleared the way for subpoenas compelling five Justice Department officials and six of the U.S. attorneys they fired to tell the story of the purge that has prompted demands for the ouster of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The voice vote to authorize the panel to issue subpoenas amounts to insurance against the possibility that Gonzales could retract his permission to let the aides testify voluntarily, or impose strict conditions.
The committee also postponed for a week a vote on whether to authorize subpoenas of top aides to President Bush who were involved in the eight firings, including political adviser Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley.
Rove on Thursday chalked the uproar up to partisan games, noting that President Clinton dismissed all 93 U.S. attorneys and brought in his own team at the beginning of his presidential term.
"The president's entitled to do it," Rove said during a speech at Troy University. "This in my mind is a lot of politics."
But Democrats charge that the administration singled out some of its own nominees because they chafed at the president's priorities, to make way for White House allies.
"Eight U.S. attorneys who did not play ball with the political agenda of this administration were dropped from the team," said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. "We have a right to ask what that political agenda was and whether or not it was a reasonable firing and dismissal."
The committee approved subpoena power over key Justice Department officials involved in the firings: Michael Elston, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Bill Mercer and Mike Battle.
Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, quit this week. Elston is staff chief to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Mercer is associate attorney general. Goodling is Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison, and Battle is the departing director of the office that oversees all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales has said he would allow the aides still at the Justice Department to testify voluntarily.
The panel also approved subpoena power for six of the eight U.S. attorneys fired since December. The six, all of whom testified last week under oath before the House Committee, are: Carol Lam of California, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, Paul Charlton of Arizona, John McKay of Washington state, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, David Iglesias of New Mexico.
"We have clearly communicated to the Congress our willingness to make available voluntarily department employees whom the Congress wishes to interview privately and in public hearings," said DOJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "We are disappointed that some members of the Judiciary Committee chose to disregard these facts and have sought to pursue unnecessary and seemingly political act of authorizing the issuance of subpoenas."
It was unclear whether Sampson would agree to tell his story without a subpoena. He is no longer on the agency's payroll, according to a Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because information had not been made public. Battle's last day is Friday.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he wanted subpoenas authorized to make sure that the aides come forward, voluntarily or not.
"I want to obtain their cooperation and all relevant information," Leahy said. "But I want people to know that if I do not get cooperation, I will subpoena, we will have testimony under oath in this committee. We will find out what happened."
Ranking Republican Arlen Specter said he would do the same thing if he were still chairman, but he cautioned against passing judgment on Gonzales and the aides before the facts are fully known.
"I agree that this committee should get to the bottom of this issue," Specter, R-Pa., said. "I would hope that we would do so with at least a modicum of objectivity."
Some senators have called for days for Bush to fire Gonzales.
Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican to call for Gonzales' ouster just hours after Bush gave the attorney general, a longtime friend of the president, a vote of confidence.
"I think the president should replace him," Sununu said in an interview. "I think the attorney general should be fired."
Although some Republicans have been tepid in their support for the attorney general, Sununu was the first to go so far in the uproar over the Justice Department's firing of the attorneys and its response to congressional questions, plus a separate report that the administration abused its power to secretly investigate suspected terrorists.
The White House issued a curt response to Sununu's remarks.
"We're disappointed, obviously," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. A Justice Department spokeswoman refused to comment.
Speaking to reporters in Mexico before returning to Washington, Bush expressed confidence in Gonzales and defended the firings. "What Al did and what the Justice Department did was appropriate," the president said.
Still, Bush left himself room to sack the attorney general.
"What was mishandled was the explanation of the cases to the Congress," Bush said. "And Al's got work to do up there."