Does failing to pass a no-confidence vote mean that the Senate really has confidence in embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales?
"A lot of Senators felt strongly that this was a meaningless resolution and that this was political theater," said Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican. "At the same time they've been fairly disappointed in the leadership of the Justice Department."
The Senate on Monday shot down a single-sentence resolution stating that Gonzales "no longer holds the confidence of the American people." A procedural vote to bring the resolution to the floor failed to get the 60 votes needed, garnering a vote of 53-38 in favor.
The Attorney General has been criticized with many members of his own party calling for his ouster for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. Gonzales has repeatedly said he had no role in deciding which U.S. attorneys should be fired, assertions that Justice Department aides and documents have contradicted.
Most Republicans Monday accused Democrats of political grandstanding since, even if passed, the resolution would have no teeth: Gonzales serves at the pleasure of the President and short of impeachment there's little Congress can do to change that.
"We ought to summarily put this out into the backfield where it belongs," Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said before the vote. "How low can the Senate go?"
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the sponsor of the legislation, argued back that the vote "rises to the highest calling of the Senate: the rule of law over politics." Added Schumer, who is also the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: "We have a sacred, noble obligation."
Polls show that a majority of Americans believe Gonzales should resign, and only one Republican Senator actually defended Gonzales' role in the firing of the U.S. Attorneys: Orrin Hatch of Utah. "After all this time, all this effort and all this taxpayer money, there is no evidence" that Gonzales acted inappropriately, Hatch said though he acknowledged that the Justice Department "badly executed and explained" the firings.
Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican Senator from Texas, also noted that Gonzales had, at least, not broken any laws. "There has been no allegation that he has done something criminal or illegal; just that people disagree with his judgment," she said on the floor of the Senate.
Gonzales delivered a speech in Miami Monday on combating terrorism and later met with the U.S. attorney's office in Mobile, Alabama. He did not comment on the vote. When asked about it last week at a press conference on gang indictments, Gonzales simply said it's "up to Congress to decide what they want to spend their time working on. I'm spending my time focused on what's important to the American people."
Even the seven Republicans like Arlen Specter and Sununu who voted to proceed with the no-confidence vote viewed it as little more than a political stunt. In many ways, said Specter, the vote was really targeted at G.O.P. Senators like Sununu facing tough re-election fights next year. While Sununu essentially voted in favor of the no-confidence resolution, Democrats are looking for a "gotcha 30-second commercial in later campaigns" where they can accuse Republicans who voted against the measure of "sanctioning the conduct of Attorney General Gonzales," Specter said.
The Senate has never passed a no-confidence vote traditionally a Parliamentary tool used in countries like Great Britain and Israel of a cabinet member, according to Betty Koed, a Senate historian. Democrats threatened such a move against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he resigned the day after Democrats gained control of Congress last November.
The vote is hardly the end of Gonzales' woes. Both House and Senate Juciary Committees have ongoing investigations into the firings and he will likely be called back to Capitol Hill to testify soon.