WASHINGTON – A confident Attorney General Alberto Gonzales endured another congressional grilling on the botched firings of federal prosecutors Thursday, seeming secure enough to call it a "somewhat liberating" experience.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee fired tough questions at him — as their Senate counterparts had last month. But Gonzales seemed to weather the interrogation better this time around, and he didn't hear any more calls for his resignation.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed that only President Bush and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had stood solidly behind him. But House Republicans at Thursday's hearing echoed Gonzales' call for Congress to move on.
"You know who put them on the list but you wont tell us," Wexler complained to Gonzales.
The attorney general said he had little to add to the story. "My feelings and recollections about this matter have not changed," he said. Gonzales' answers to the House panel were in sharp contrast to his testy responses to senators three weeks ago.
In contrast to Republican senators who shook their heads in exasperation at Gonzales' failure to remember key details about the firings at the earlier hearing, House GOP lawmakers sprang to his defense.
"The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee's senior GOP member. "If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues."
Democrats showed no willingness to quit asking questions about whether White House officials ordered the firings of prosecutors not sufficiently loyal to the Bush administration. Democrats probed whether the Justice Department scuttled more prosecutors than the eight jettisoned over the winter, asking about prosecutor resignations in Los Angeles and Missouri.
"The department's most precious asset — its reputation for integrity and independence — has been called into question," said committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. "Until we get to the bottom of how this list was created, and why, those doubts will persist."
"Cooperate with us," Conyers appealed to Gonzales.
"I'm trying, Mr. Chairman," the attorney general replied.
Having survived months of calls for his resignation, Gonzales appeared less nervous. He acknowledged a sinking morale at the Justice Department in the wake of the prosecutor firings but made it clear he plans to remain as attorney general — despite what he described as his mistakes in overseeing the dismissals.
"This process is somewhat liberating," he said.
Republican members of the House panel moved on to other subjects — though much of this questioning was no more friendly. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked why there had been no new developments in the federal bribery probe of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.
"I cannot talk about that," Gonzales replied.
"Well, everyone is talking about it except you," Sensenbrenner shot back. "This is kind of embarrassing."
The questioning quickly turned back to the fired prosecutors.
Under persistent questioning Thursday about who originated the list of prosecutors to be fired, Gonzales maintained that his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, put it together after gathering information from other senior officials in the Justice Department.
"I understood it to be the consensus of the senior leadership of the department," Gonzales said. He acknowledged, however, that presidential adviser Karl Rove raised concerns with Gonzales about voter fraud prosecutions in three jurisdictions, including New Mexico. David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney there, was later fired.
Democrats focused on whether Todd Graves, a former federal prosecutor in Missouri, was forced out a year before the others because he refused to sign a Justice Department lawsuit alleging voter fraud a year before the 2006 elections. As the Senate Judiciary Committee requested answers from Graves' replacement, House lawmakers sought answers from Gonzales.
"I have no basis to believe that case had anything to do with Mr. Graves' departure," Gonzales said under questioning from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Gonzales also said that Debra Yang, formerly the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, resigned in October to take a higher paying job at a private firm.
In the three weeks since Gonzales' Senate testimony, the department disclosed that it is investigating whether his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, weighed the political affiliations of those she considered hiring as entry-level prosecutors. Consideration of such affiliations could be a violation of federal law.
More of the fired U.S. attorneys also have told congressional investigators they were warned that if they publicly protested their dismissals, Justice Department officials would publicly criticize their performance. And there have been new allegations that U.S. attorneys were evaluated on their enthusiasm for pursuing voter fraud cases that might benefit Republican candidates.
Conyers is holding a subpoena for Rove but has not issued it. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week subpoenaed Gonzales for all e-mails the Justice Department has gathered regarding Rove and the firings.