Gonzales Gets Hit from Both Sides

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 19, 2007.

During his intensive preparations for Thursday's hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales knew that Democrats would be laying into him about allegations of incompetence, misstatements and undue political influence in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. But he had to at least hope that Republicans wouldn't be his major challenge as he scrambled to save his job. Given the tense questioning, however, it's clear that Gonzales has his hands full with both parties.

The first Republican to tackle Gonzales was Arlen Specter, the committee's ranking minority member, who termed Gonzales' session on Capitol Hill a "reconfirmation hearing." Though Specter started with the charitable tone of voice he reserves for those who he views as foolish but forgivable, Gonzales quickly did two things you never do with the cantankerous senior Senator from Pennsylvania: he both interrupted and challenged him. When Specter was asking Gonzales about conflicts between his opening statement and comments he made at a press conference earlier this year, Specter said, as an aside, that he was sure that Gonzales had prepared heavily for this testimony, as several newspapers had reported. The Attorney General cut in and said, "I prepare for every hearing, Senator."

Specter, visibly annoyed, shot back, "Do you prepare for all your press conferences?" His voice rising, he referred again to the contradictory statements Gonzales has made about the firings in different venues, a key issue in judging the AG's credibility on the Hill and his ability to hold the job. Gonzales, still apparently unaware of what he'd done to anger Specter, kept trying to break in to defend himself. When Specter, just beginning to cool down, said, "I don't think you're going to win a debate about your preparation," to the titters of the crowd, Gonzales meekly offered: "I apologize."

Gonzales may have learned his lesson. He waited backstage after the first round of questioning to try and patch things up with Specter. While Specter was answering questions from the press about their exchange, saying he was willing to give the AG another chance in the second round, someone informed him that Gonzales was waiting. "It's all right," said Spector, "let him wait."

Whether or not he has lost Specter won't be known until after the hearings. The Pennysylvania Senator can sometimes bark worse than he bites. But it underscored one of Gonzales's chief problems, which existed long before the attorneys scandal broke: he has never made the effort to establish relationships with Senators on the Hill, leaving him both unaware of their quirks and without the ability to rally allies.

Two other Republicans questioned Gonzales before lunch and they were easier on him. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas simply ran down the list of ousted U.S. attorneys, asking why they had been fired. Gonzales delivered his well-practiced responses. Sen. Orrin Hatch provided the kind of leading questions that are designed to help a witness dig himself out of hole. Gonzales tentatively took the opportunity. After a mid-morning break Sen. Cornyn, an old colleague of Gonzales' from Texas, was equally deferential.

But other Republicans were not so charitable. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a key Bush loyalist who early today said that Gonzales's essential virtue "will show through," was tough on the Attorney General. Sessions took particular issue with Gonzales' statement that he could not remember the specifics of a November 27 meeting of top Justice Department officials to discuss the dismissals, only 10 days before they were carried out. During the lunch break, Sessions told TIME, "I'm troubled, very troubled that the Attorney General just flatly stated he had no recollections of the meeting in November. It's not like it was three or four years ago; it was just last November." His inability to remember was "frankly not plausible to me," Sessions added, while stressing that he has not formed a final opinion yet on the Attorney General and would not speculate on whether Gonzales will survive the scandal.

At one point, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina gently suggested that the firings may have actually been the result of general personality and ideological conflicts rather than the performance issues that the Justice Department has pointed to, but Gonzales rejected that claim. "Why is your story changing?" a clearly frustrated Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa asked after lunch, referring to the fact that the Attorney General now accepts responsibility for the firings.

It was Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a diehard conservative, who went the furthest, calling late in the afternoon for Gonzales' resignation. "The best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Coburn said, a statement Gonzales vehemently took issue with. "At the end of the day I did not do anything improper," he claimed.

Still, even if all Republicans on the committee turned on him, it may take more than that to do Gonzales in. "His survival is in the hands of the President," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois pointed out during the break. So in the end, the Attorney General's fate may rest with just one Republican - the one in the White House.