WASHINGTON – Alberto Gonzales (search) will face tough questioning during hearings on his nomination to become the next attorney general but is on track to be confirmed, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat said Wednesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., met with Gonzales and warned him to be prepared for lengthy questioning about his positions on how the Geneva Conventions apply to the war on terrorism (search) and whether his close relationship with President Bush jeopardizes his independence.
"There are going to be issues that are going to come up where the interest of justice may be at odds with the interest of the president as an individual, and you have to go with the interest of justice," Leahy said he told Gonzales.
To cite one high-profile example, Gonzales — if confirmed — will have to decide whether to recuse himself from the investigation into the leak to the press of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame (search). Outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) did step aside under pressure, and Gonzales testified in June before a grand jury hearing evidence in that case.
"I think this is an issue that will be raised at the confirmation hearings," Leahy said.
Leahy also said Gonzales, currently the White House legal counsel, is a less controversial figure than Ashcroft, who frequently clashed with Democrats over congressional oversight and tactics used in the war on terror.
"The president could have picked a more polarizing figure. He did not. I applaud him for that," Leahy told reporters after the 30-minute meeting. "I think he has a far better chance of confirmation with substantial votes from both sides of the aisle than a more divisive figure would have."
During a brief photo session with Leahy, Gonzales did not respond to reporters' questions about a controversial memo he wrote in 2002 contending Bush had the right to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. Critics have said that position helped lead to abuses of the type seen at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Ashcroft will stay on as attorney general until Gonzales is confirmed.
The Judiciary Committee has not yet set a timetable for confirmation hearings, in part because of turmoil over the panel's chairmanship in the next Congress.
The current chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, is stepping down because of term limits on committee leadership. Next in line is Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is attempting to solidify support among his GOP colleagues after conservatives questioned whether he would be an obstacle to Bush's judicial nominees.