WASHINGTON (AP) _ A powerful Senate Republican on Tuesday told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the firings of federal prosecutors.
Sen. Arlen Specter told the embattled attorney general such that a scenario may now be necessary because, the senator maintained, Bush administration officials have made statements that might have the effect of shutting down congressional supervision.
``The constitutional authority and responsibility for congressional oversight is gone,'' said Specter, the Judiciary Committee's senior Republican. Gonzales sat just a few feet away, at the witness table, as Pennsylvania Republican declared: ``If that is to happen, the president can run the government as he chooses, answer no questions.''
The attorney general has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor,'' Specter added, looking Gonzales in the eye.
``I don't trust you,'' committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Gonzales.
The prospect of a special prosecutor moved the controversy to new ground after nearly seven months of Congress' standoff with the White House over a Democratic-driven effort to find out whether the White House directed the federal prosecutor firings to influence corruption prosecutions in ways that might help Republicans. Gonzales and Bush have denied that and have noted that prosecutors are political appointees who can be dismissed for almost any reason.
Still, the Democratic-driven investigation has been costly to Gonzales and the administration. It revealed other missteps within Gonzales' Justice Department, such as the admission of a former senior aide that she sometimes considered whether candidate for career jobs in the agency contributed to Republican campaigns.
The controversy also cost Gonzales almost all of his top aides and deflated morale at the traditionally independent law enforcement agency. With Bush at his side, Gonzales survived widespread calls for his resignation and, perhaps more importantly, silence from Republicans who might have defended his stewardship.
In his opening statement, Gonzales made no mention of the U.S. attorneys and only passing reference to questions about the independence of federal prosecutors. He took full responsibility for his agency's troubles and issued a commitment to repair the damage.
``I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department,'' Gonzales said in remarks prepared for his Senate testimony. ``I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated.
He also signaled that the Democrats' effort to drum up enough pressure to force Gonzales to resign - or Bush to fire him _ had failed.
``I have never been one to quit,'' Gonzales said.
Not so long ago, Republicans as well as Democrats thought they'd seen Gonzales sit before them for the last time as attorney general. There was no way Gonzales could survive the controversy over the prosecutor firings, nor the exposure of other missteps, they said. Certainly he could not resist the widespread calls for his resignation _ one, from a Republican _ to his face as the proceedings were broadcast live.
They were wrong. A Senate vote of no confidence in Gonzales has failed, and Bush has noted that the U.S. attorneys probe did not uncover any clear wrongdoing. And, armed with the president's support, Gonzales has made clear that he does not intend to leave office before Bush does.
Democrats say the wrongdoing is Gonzales' broader failure of leadership that extends to the FBI's abuse of so-called National Security letters and a withered tradition of independence from the political interests of the White House. Not helping was Gonzales' own claim of a faulty memory _ dozens of times _ when asked by committee members in April for key details of the firings.
``This attorney general has a severe credibility problem,'' Leahy said.
``Candidly, your personal credibility,'' added ranking Republican Arlen Specter, R-Pa. ``Is your department functioning?
In his written testimony, Gonzales touted the department's focus on terrorists, violent crime and even aid to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina victims. He promised to build relationships with lawmakers, a deficit that hurt his congressional support when the controversy escalated.
But Gonzales' earnestness was unlikely to change any minds on the panel, and his own missteps have given Democrats a wide selection of topics on which to press him.
Atop the list were questions about his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, who admitted under a grant of immunity that she sometimes considered whether candidates for career positions at Justice contributed to Republican campaigns. She also said she had an ``uncomfortable'' private meeting with Gonzales just before she left Justice, at which he reiterated his recollection of the leadup to the firings, then asked her opinion of his recollections.
Lawmakers want to know whether Gonzales was trying to coach Goodling at a time when both knew they would be summoned to testify before Congress. Gonzales has said he was trying to comfort Goodling at a difficult time in her life.