WASHINGTON – A Republican senator told Alberto Gonzales he should resign over his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys as the attorney general sat in the hot seat before a panel of senators on Thursday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., urged Gonzales to take the fall for the mishandling of the firings.
"I believe you (Gonzales) ought to suffer the consequences and think best way to put this behind us is with your resignation," Coburn said.
Gonzales responded: "I don't think that is the best way to go forward."
Republican Sens. John Sununu and Gordon Smith have also called on Gonzales to resign.
Gonzales, excoriated by Democrats and some Republicans, is up on Capitol Hill to explain the decisions behind and his role in the firing of the eight attorneys last December.
"I have reviewed the documents available to the Congress, and I have asked the deputy attorney general and others in the department if I should reconsider. What I have concluded is that although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been, and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decisions to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand," Gonzales said in testimony originally scheduled to be given on Tuesday, but delayed two days because of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Even Republican committee members, while acknowledging that the attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, have suggested that it's incumbent on the attorney general to give a detailed explanation of the decision-making process in each case.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told FOX News that Gonzales "can survive, but he's got a lot of damage to repair."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., appeared astounded that Gonzales could not remember anything about a conclusive meeting in November when the final list of attorneys to be fired was presented. Sessions said he was "troubled" over Gonzales' memory.
The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said the hearing is Gonzales' chance to save his job after botching his explanations of the firings.
"It's pretty hard to unscramble the eggs, but that is a possibility," Specter said, calling Thursday's hearing the equivalent of a "reconfirmation hearing."
"This is your opportunity, Mr. Attorney General, to tackle that burden of proof, the heavy burden of proof to re-establish your credibility here," he said.
"Most of this is a stretch," Graham said after listening to Gonzales' explanation of the dismissals. "It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House and (they) just made up reasons to fire them."
• SPEAKOUT: If you could participate in Thursday's hearing, what questions would YOU ask Gonzales?
Offering a glimpse of the seriousness with which lawmakers are regarding Gonzales' future, one Republican Senate Judiciary Committee member told FOX News before the hearing, "I don't know how he survives this."
A former Department of Justice official told FOX News that "the attorney general is not performing well."
Gonzales' testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee followed an opening salvo from committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who in strong language demanded that the Bush administration "stop hiding the facts" behind its decision to call for resignations from the attorneys.
Taking a jab at President Bush's ally and former counsel, Leahy, D-Vt., added that while Gonzales tried to get away with sanctioning torture of terror detainees, he will not get away with trying to make U.S. attorneys a "political arm" of the administration.
"There's a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal" of prosecutors, Leahy said, adding that the attorney general tried to bully prosecutors by showing them that "traditional independent law enforcement would not be tolerated by this administration."
"The circumstantial evidence is substantial and growing and the burden of proof is on the attorney general to refute it," added Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "If the attorney general cannot give clear and consistent reasons for the firings, then that burden has not been met."
Spectators included Code Pink protesters who wore orange garb and pink police costumes. The words "Arrest Gonzales" were duct-taped to their backs and they carried signs that said "Resign."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,141 adults taken April 12-15 showed that 67 percent believe the attorneys were fired for political reasons; 19 percent believed they were fired for performance reasons; and 14 percent had no opinion. On the question of whether Gonzales should keep his job, 45 percent said no, 39 percent he should remain and 16 percent had no opinion.
Separately, a CBS News poll of 994 adults taken April 9-12 showed 52 percent of Americans who said they were closely following the story thought Gonzales should resign; 38 percent said he should not resign, and 10 percent said they weren't sure. But only 41 percent of the overall poll respondents said they were tracking the story closely.
Not long into the hearing, Gonzales was asked directly to defend his job. Sen. Herb Kohl, D- Wis., bluntly questioned why the attorney general believes he should keep his job even as U.S. public opinion sways against him.
"Sadly your actions have severely shaken the confidence of the American people in you, and in your ability to fulfill your public trust. ... Would you explain to the American people why it is so important that you should remain in this office?" Kohl asked.
Gonzales offered as an example of his impartiality the plea deal made with former Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney just six weeks before the 2006 midterm election. Ney's plea agreement to serve 2 1/2 years in a federal prison related to corruption charges associated with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"We don't let politics play a role — partisan politics — play a role in the decisions we make in cases. And we've prosecuted members of Congress. We've prosecuted governors, Republicans. And so this notion that somehow we're playing politics with the cases we bring, it's just not true. ... What you're doing is you're criticizing career folks," he said.
Gonzales also said that he thinks he can still be effective even if American sentiment remains against him after the hearings.
"Senator, I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as the leader of this department. Sitting here today, I believe that I can. And every day I ask myself that question, 'Can I continue to be effective as leader of this department?' The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who followed Kohl, was much more sympathetic to Gonzales, opening an opportunity for the attorney general to say he doesn't make decisions based on poll numbers.
"I make decisions ... based on the evidence, not based upon whether the target is a Republican or a Democrat. Of course, I've been appointed by the president and confirmed by this Senate to make decisions based on my best judgment."
"I take it, whether or not it favors you or disappoints you?" Hatch said.
"Sometimes, sir, in doing my job, I'm going to make people unhappy," Gonzales replied.
Schumer, one of the most outspoken lawmakers calling for Gonzales' resignation, homed in on an apparent discrepancy between Gonzales and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in a conversation in early December.
Pryor has said that Gonzales promised not to use a temporary measure found in the U.S.A. Patriot Act to install U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. One of the attorneys dismissed is Bud Cummins of Arkansas.
Schumer pointed to an e-mail by former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson, which laid out a plan to use the provision to circumvent the confirmation process.
"So which is it? Again, did Kyle Sampson put out this memo completely on his own? ... If your chief of staff is implementing a major plan that contradicts what you told the U.S. senator from that state, in my view, you shouldn't be attorney general. And if on the other hand, what you said to Senator Pryor contradicts the plan, you also shouldn't be attorney general," Schumer said.
Gonzales replied: "Mr. Sampson also testified 15 to 20 times in various ways that I either rejected this plan, I never liked this plan, thought it was a bad idea, never considered it, would not have considered it."
"Who's running the department?" Schumer asked.
"Senator, I wasn't aware of this email, but again, I want to be very, very clear about this. I never liked this plan," Gonzales said.
Every member of the panel but two was present at the opening of Thursday's hearing. Absent were Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Gonzales supporter John Cornyn, R-Texas, but Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. who is not on the panel, was sitting in.
Salazar, a former state attorney general, recused himself from the ethics committee probe of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is facing questions about his involvement in the firing of David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico. Salazar, a member of the ethics panel, said he is sitting out the investigation because of his relationship with Patricia Madrid, New Mexico attorney general and 2006 congressional candidate against Republican Rep. Heather Wilson. Wilson has been questioned alongside Domenici over their inquiries into possible indictments to be handed out in a potential voter fraud case involving a liberal-leaning group operating in the state.
The White House role appeared clearer during the hearing when Gonzales confirmed what Sampson had told staffers in an off-camera testimony about a conversation with Rove. Gonzales said he spoke to Bush in mid-October about vote fraud concerns and directed Sampson to "look into the vote prosecution issue, including those in New Mexico," according to Sampson's sworn testimony.
Two committee Republicans told FOX News that the weakest performance stems from the firing of Iglesias. Gonzales said he stands by the firing of Iglesias.
Besides Iglesias, several other U.S. attorneys were involved in partisan-tinged cases, lending to the appearance that the firings may have been politically-motivated. Gonzales has denied that repeatedly, but in explaining his role has offered differing versions of events, first saying he had almost no involvement and later acknowledging that his role was larger. The revisions followed the dump in Congress of thousands of documents that revealed his participation in meetings at the Justice Department about possible dismissals.
"It's not exactly a matter of precision to say you discussed the issues or were involved in deliberations or decisions. That is just a very basic fundamental fact," Specter said.
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.