WASHINGTON – If Alberto Gonzales resigns, Democrats will not confirm a new attorney general until they are satisfied they have the full story of the firing of eight federal prosecutors, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday.
"In case anybody's thinking of shortchanging it that way, I have a message for them: We'll finish this investigation before we'll have any confirmation hearings for a new attorney general," said Patrick Leahy, who would lead any such proceedings. "I want to know what the facts were," said Leahy, D-Vt.
His comments reflected the fragile hold Gonzales has on his job and the escalating tensions between Democrats in Congress and President Bush over any testimony by White House aides and documents related to the firings.
Leahy indicated that Gonzales' credibility has suffered from repeated attempts to explain contradictions between his account of his involvement in the firings and e-mails released by his department that suggest he may have done more than sign off on them.
"You can only do, 'What I really meant to say,' three or four or five or six times," Leahy said, half-kidding. "Then people tend not to believe it."
Gonzales has refused to resign over the firings and the Justice Department's bungled response to questions about them from Congress. For now, he retains Bush's support — though the president has put the onus on Gonzales for resolving lawmakers' questions.
During a multistate tour, Gonzales has acknowledged his precarious position.
"I'm traveling a bumpy road these days," Gonzales said Wednesday during a brief lunch speech to about 1,000 members of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
He made no direct reference to the uproar over the firings, which Democrats have dubbed "intimidation by purge" for those prosecutors deemed not loyal enough to the president. Gonzales took no questions at the event.
Back in Washington, Democrats cranked up the pressure on the administration over whether, and under what conditions, Karl Rove and other top presidential aides would testify on the extent to which they were involved in the deciding whom to fire.
Bush has refused to allow Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to testify in public or under oath and has declined to release internal documents unless they flowed outside the White House.
Democrats pressed their case.
"We have not heard from you," Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan wrote to White House Counsel Fred Fielding.
The White House has indicated no willingness to move beyond Bush's initial offer to let Rove, Miers and their deputies to speak to committee members in private, without being sworn and off the record.
Those terms — particularly Fielding's insistence on there being no transcript — have been dismissed by lawmakers.
"We hope that you will reconsider your 'all or nothing' approach," Leahy and Conyers said.
The two Democrats warned that silence from the White House would not be the end of the matter and cautioned Fielding to preserve all documents detailing the aides' roles in the firings. That includes, the chairmen said, e-mails they may have written on accounts outside the White House — such as the Republican National Committee and other political campaigns.
"We trust that you ... are not artificially limiting your production to the official white House e-mail and document retention system," the chairmen wrote.
Kyle Sampson, who quit as Gonzales' top aide earlier this month, has volunteered to testify before Leahy's committee Thursday. Leahy said he all but forced the appearance by signing a subpoena for Sampson and holding it in the committee's safe.
He and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the probe, tried to lower expectations for any revelations.
"The purpose is not 'gotcha,"' Schumer said of the hearing.
Still, he noted, Sampson had worked on the firings for two years, set out the criteria for them and crafted a five-step plan for carrying them out.
"Kyle Sampson was at the center of all of this," Schumer said. "Kyle Sampson will know the facts better than anybody."
On the House side, Conyers was increasing his committee staff to deal with a prolonged investigation expected to wind through legal debates over executive privilege and the invoking of Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The burden of sorting through masses of documents — with more than 3,000 released so far — underscored the committee's need for extra help, Conyers said. He thus has approved a contract with the law firm Arnold & Porter worth up to $225,000 through the end of the year.
Republicans said the contract, which was first reported by The Washington Times, was evidence that Democrats were willing to invest taxpayer money in efforts to conduct political investigations of the administration, rather than pass legislation.
"Instead of funding show trials, the Democrats should show they care about passing a responsible budget and giving our military commanders in Iraq the resources they need to win," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.