WASHINGTON – Two Senate Democrats said Thursday they will seek a no-confidence vote on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over accusations that he carried out President Bush's political agenda at the expense of the Justice Department's independence.
Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, who have led the investigation into the conduct of White House officials and Gonzales, said the attorney general has been too weakened to run the department.
Just when such a vote might occur in the Senate was uncertain.
Their announcement is the latest in a series of blows suffered by Gonzales this week, including new criticism from Republicans and the prediction of one GOP veteran that the investigation into the firings of federal prosecutors would end with the attorney general's resignation.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that the Justice Department can't properly protect the nation from terrorism or oversee Bush's no-warrant eavesdropping program with Gonzales at the helm.
"I have a sense that when we finish our investigation, we may have the conclusion of the tenure of the attorney general," Specter said during a committee hearing. "I think when our investigation is concluded, it'll be clear even to the attorney general and the president that we're looking at a dysfunctional department which is vital to the national welfare."
His comment echoed new criticism of Gonzales this week. Former deputy attorney general James Comey testified that Gonzales tried to get his predecessor as attorney general, John Ashcroft, to approve Bush's eavesdropping program as Ashcroft lay in intensive care.
Asked twice during a news conference Thursday if he personally ordered Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card to Ashcroft's hospital room, Bush refused to answer.
"There's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen. I'm not going to talk about it," Bush said.
The tale inspired Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to become the fourth Republican senator to call for Gonzales' resignation. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., joined in the criticism.
"When you have to spend more time up here on Capitol Hill instead of running the Justice Department, maybe you ought to think about it," Roberts told The Associated Press.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who has not called for Gonzales' resignation, agreed.
"I have absolutely no confidence in the attorney general or his leadership," said Leahy, D-Vt.
Bush has stood by his longtime friend and adviser, the key to Gonzales' hold on his job.
But just when some predicted that Gonzales had survived the furors over the firings, Comey's testimony helped broaden the Democrat-led probe into whether the attorney general politicized the Justice department at the White House's behest.
Gonzales has said only eight U.S. attorneys were targeted for dismissal. But the Justice Department, over nearly two years, listed as many as 26 prosecutors after concerns were raised about their performances, a senior government official familiar with the process said Thursday.
The Justice Department said it fully supports all of its current U.S. attorneys. The list of 26 names was first reported Thursday by The Washington Post.
Many of the names on various and changing lists of prosecutors under scrutiny "clearly did not represent the final actions or views of the department's leadership or the attorney general," said Justice spokesman Dean Boyd. He said the lists "reflect Kyle Sampson's thoughts for discussion during the consultation process."
Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff, oversaw the review that drove the firings. He resigned in March as a result of the department's botched handling of the dismissals.
The developments came as Democrats sought more testimony from current and former Justice Department officials. House Democrats announced that Gonzales' former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, would testify next week under a grant of immunity.
At issue is whether the department, at the White House's urging, tried to cause problems for Democrats by facilitating voter fraud cases and others involving corruption.
Comey's testimony this week further weakened Gonzales among Republicans as well as Democrats.
According to Comey, Gonzales in 2004 pressured Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of Bush's no-warrant eavesdropping program. The conversation took place at Ashcroft's hospital bedside as the attorney general recuperated from pancreatitis.
Ashcroft rebuffed Gonzales, but the White House certified the program's legality anyway. Faced with the resignations of Ashcroft, Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Bush ordered the program be changed to accommodate Justice's objections.
Democrats said his testimony appeared to contradict Gonzales' account in February 2006, when he told two congressional panels that there had "not been any serious disagreement about the program."
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman said Gonzales' testimony "was and remains accurate."
Joining Hagel in demanding Gonzales' resignation are GOP Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona, who is a presidential candidate. House Republican Conference Chair Adam Putman of Florida also has called for a new attorney general.