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Gonzales Finds More Friends in Latest Trip to the Hill

To use a sports analogy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales doesn't care for playing away games. And three weeks ago, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales was very much on the road facing a hostile crowd of Democrats and Republicans who felt they weren't getting straight answers from the AG regarding the firings of U.S. attorneys last year.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
The attorney general found a friendlier audience in House Republicans on Thursday. (Getty Images)

On Thursday, while it wasn't quite a home game for Gonzales, he took his game to a neutral site, as Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee vigorously defended the attorney general and intermittently attacked Democrats.

Gonzales did not necessarily provide more detailed answers, but he was clearly more confident and forceful in his responses, knowing that there were more than a dozen Republicans waiting to jump in on his side of the fight.

Take a look at this Capitol Briefing post from the Gonzales hearing three weeks ago to see how Senate Republicans handled the attorney general, which prompted a political death watch that now appears to be subsiding, at least temporarily.

Yesterday, not a single Republican openly criticized the attorney general for the firings, other than to say it was not handled well in terms of public relations -- an admission Gonzales himself has made many times over the past two months. Many Republicans focused their questioning of Gonzales on other matters. And his staunchest defenders were conservatives, politically significant because that wing of the Republican Party has not previously been a base of support for Gonzales, whose personal views on social issues such as abortion rights have always been unclear.

But take a look at these comments today from conservatives:

* Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.): "We're acting around this place like U.S. attorneys are the product of the Immaculate Conception, and once they've been created that cannot be undone."

* Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.): "There were administrative errors that you have been candid about. ... I, as a public servant, have not seen evidence of wrongdoing. And I appreciate you making that distinction again in this public forum, repeatedly."

* Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.): "It's important to ask these questions, but it's not important to ask the same questions to the same people ad infinitum. But I'll do one more and then we'll move on to some important things that the department is doing. Are you aware of any evidence whatever that might tend to demonstrate that people were asked to resign specifically in order to interfere with ongoing investigations for partisan purposes?"

Not surprisingly, Gonzales answered "no" to that softball question from Feeney.

Democrats, for their part, did not score many points against Gonzales, who was declared a hostile witness from the outset by committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.). Gonzales began the Q&A portion of the hearing by explaining the process of putting together the firing list, which involved delegating authority to top aides. But Conyers cut off the attorney general.

"In other words, you don't know. And I'm not putting words in your mouth, but you haven't answered the question," he said.

The most revealing information came from questioning by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Gonzales explained, in the clearest public testimony yet, that complaints from Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) about now fired federal prosecutor David C. Iglesias centered entirely on his lack of prosecution of corruption cases and voter fraud.

Gonzales said Domenici complained to him in September 2005 about a lack of corruption cases being prosecuted -- whether Iglesias had his "best people working" those cases -- and in a call in 2006 he complained about "the issue of voter fraud cases generally."

Domenici, who is facing a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry on his actions relating to Iglesias's firing, has said that his complaints to Gonzales were about a lack of resources in the office and has never spelled out the cases he was complaining about. He denies every pressuring him to bring any cases against Democrats.

New Mexico Democrats allege he worked to get Iglesias fired simply because he didn't prosecute enough Democrats for corruption or liberal get-out-the-vote activists for fraud.

Regardless of the motives, Gonzales told Schiff, a former assistant U.S. attorney in California, that Domenici's disapproval of Iglesias was very determinative to his fate.

"Not having the confidence of the senior senator and the senior leadership in the department was enough for me to lose confidence in Mr. Iglesias," he said.

By Paul Kane  |  May 11, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Hearing Watch , House  
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Next: Senate GOP: Light at the End of the Iraq Tunnel?

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