WASHINGTON – The White House scrambled Sunday to move up Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' planned testimony to Congress on April 17 about his involvement in firing eight federal prosecutors, only to get a cold shoulder from majority Democrats.
The effort reflected the frustration by Republican senators and the White House over how long it is taking the embattled attorney general to explain himself under oath. Congress has just begun a vacation — one week for the Senate, two for the House.
In a sign of Gonzales' diminished standing on Capitol Hill, the Senate GOP leader offered lukewarm support for the nation's top law enforcer, whose inconsistent explanations about the dismissals have become a distraction for the Bush administration.
Asked directly if he has confidence in Gonzales, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "I can honestly say the president does."
"What I can tell you at the moment is that he enjoys the support of the president, for whom he works," he said. "I think most Republican senators are willing to give the attorney general a chance to come up before the Judiciary Committee and give his side of the story."
Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17. White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the committee ought to reschedule the hearing for next week.
"Let's move it up and let's get the facts," Bartlett said. "Let's have the attorney general there sooner rather than later."
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, said Gonzales had been offered earlier dates but turned them down. It was Gonzales who chose April 17, said Leahy, D-Vt., and that date will not change now because "everybody has set their schedule according to that."
"It's the date that the attorney general originally picked. It's the date the hearing will take place," Leahy said.
Until recently, department officials also said they wanted to give Congress enough time to go through the more than 3,000 pages of e-mails, memos, calendar pages and other documents detailing the decision to fire the prosecutors.
That changed Friday — the day after Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, testified to the committee — when aides said they would try to get Gonzales to Capitol Hill as soon as possible to explain his side.
In his testimony, Sampson said that Gonzales was deeply involved in the removal of the U.S. attorneys, contrary to the attorney general's public statements.
"We are absolutely confused by the White House position," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "For the longest time, Alberto Gonzales wasn't going to come, maybe much later. Now the White House can't wait to bring him in."
Gonzales himself instructed a top aide on Saturday to see if the testimony date could be moved up.
He did so, said Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos, because he is eager to testify and "move on as soon as possible to the other important work before the committee and the department." She said a key reason that Gonzales and the committee settled on April 17 in the first place was because Gonzales was scheduled to testify before another committee, Senate Appropriations, on April 10.
Meanwhile, during the congressional recess, Senate Democrats are interviewing lower-level Justice Department officials in private to lay the groundwork for their session with Gonzales.
The clarity and substance of his testimony may influence whether Gonzales keeps his job. President Bush has stood by him, issuing another vote of confidence on Saturday. But Bush has bluntly told Gonzales to explain himself better to Congress.
Lawmakers have demanded to know whether the prosecutors were fired as part of a plan to fill the jobs with political cronies, or as payback for not pursuing cases that were politically important to Republicans.
Not a single allegation of wrongdoing has been backed up by documents and testimony provided so far, Bartlett said.
Congress and the White House remain in a standoff over whether Bush political adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and other administration officials will testify in public about their roles in the firings. There appeared no signs of progress on Sunday.
Bartlett spoke on ABC's "This Week" and CBS' "Face the Nation." McConnell appeared on "FOX News Sunday." Leahy spoke on "Meet the Press."
Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 04-01-07 1523EDT