WASHINGTON – Senators of both parties have shifted from simple disapproval of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to tactical planning for how to get rid of him if he does not correct what they say are inconsistencies in his sworn congressional testimony.
Senate officials say they expect some response from the embattled attorney general by Friday, the deadline set by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. But if Gonzales does not satisfy committee members, they are likely to shift quickly to an effort to oust him.
The panel's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, at one time refrained from calling for Gonzales' resignation outright. He's now seeking to pry Gonzales from office.
"I think we need to finish this investigation and find a way to end the tenure of Attorney General Gonzales," Specter said Thursday during the panel's oversight hearing of the Justice Department.
Even as Gonzales' critics pivoted from words to tactics, there was no sign of Gonzales stepping down or being fired by President Bush. In a letter to Leahy and Specter on Wednesday, Gonzales said he was troubled by the allegations of untruthfulness and sought to explain one highly arcane inconsistency about dissent within the administration over Bush's secretive intelligence gathering.
The explanation apparently has saved Gonzales from being charged with perjury or making false statements to Congress — two crimes that lawmakers of both parties do not think they can prove. Among the topics that bring Gonzales' answers into question: Whether he talked to witnesses about the firings and civil liberties abuses under the USA Patriot Act.
For lawmakers looking to oust Gonzales, there are options besides perjury. Leahy and Specter are said to be considering a referral to the Justice Department's inspector general to look into whether Gonzales is guilty of misconduct as attorney general for making misleading statements to Congress.
"If he stands behind the answers he gave, I find him not believable and will ask the inspector general to investigate," Leahy told The Politico.
In the House, a group of Democrats have introduced a resolution directing the Judiciary Committee to impeach Gonzales. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who has called for a new attorney general said the measure had merit but was not atop her list of priorities.
A Senate resolution expressing no confidence in Gonzales fell seven votes short of advancing.