Gonzales looks to ‘next 18 months’

WASHINGTON — Republicans blocked a Senate no-confidence vote on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Monday, rejecting a symbolic Democratic effort to force him from office amid blistering criticism from lawmakers in both parties.

The 53-38 vote to move the resolution to full debate fell seven short of the 60 required. In bringing the matter up, Democrats dared Republicans to vote their true feelings about an attorney general who has alienated even the White House’s strongest defenders by bungling the firings of federal prosecutors and claiming not to recall the details.

Republicans did not defend him, but most voted against moving the resolution ahead.

Among them was Republicans was Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Ensign has strongly criticized the Justice Department’s firing of Daniel Bogden as Nevada’s U.S. attorney, but has remained silent as to whether Gonzales should resign.

The four other members of Nevada’s delegation to Congress have called on the attorney general to quit or be fired.

Ensign viewed the no confidence resolution as “a political stunt by the Democrats,” spokesman Tory Mazzola said.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the resolution. The Democratic leader said Bogden’s termination was only one reason that Gonzales should quit or be fired.

“As White House counsel, he presided over the development of anti-terror tactics that have undermined the rule of law and made Americans less safe,” said Reid, the Senate majority leader.

“Time and time again, Alberto Gonzales has proven beyond a doubt his incompetence, misjudgment and lack of independence,” Reid said. “He is profoundly unworthy to hold one of the highest and most important offices in the land.”

Monday’s vote was not the end of scrutiny for Gonzales and his management of the Justice Department — more congressional hearings are scheduled and an internal department investigation continues.

Short of impeachment, Congress has no authority to oust a Cabinet member, but Democrats were trying anew to give him a push. Gonzales dismissed the rhetorical ruckus in the Senate, and President Bush continued to stand by his longtime friend and legal adviser.

“They can have their votes of no confidence, but it’s not going to make the determination about who serves in my government,” Bush said in Sofia, Bulgaria, the last stop on a weeklong visit to Europe.

“This process has been drug out a long time,” Bush added. “It’s political.”

The attorney general said he didn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

“I am focused on the next 18 months and sprinting to the finish line,” Gonzales said as he met Monday with child advocates in an impoverished Mobile, Ala., neighborhood.

In the Senate, seven Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the no confidence resolution.

Even before the controversy over fired prosecutors, lawmakers of both parties complained that Gonzales allowed Justice to violate civil liberties on a host of other issues — such as implementing Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.

One veteran Republican said Gonzales had used up all his political capital in the Senate.

“There is no confidence in the attorney general on this side of the aisle,” said Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter voted to move the resolution forward, but he said many of his GOP colleagues would not because they feared political retribution.

Democrats said it was only fair to put senators on record for or against Gonzales, particularly since five GOP senators have called for the attorney general’s resignation and many more have said they have lost confidence in him.

The mere debate shook loose another Republican call for a new attorney general.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for the first time publicly declared she had lost confidence in Gonzales.

“I think his continued tenure does not benefit the department or our country,” she said.

Chief sponsor Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged more like her to vote their true feelings.

“If senators cast their vote with their conscience, they would speak with near unanimity that there is no confidence in the attorney general,” said Schumer. “Their united voice would undoubtedly dislodge the attorney general from the post that he should no longer hold.”

“He deserves to be fired,” Reid said.

Whatever Gonzales may or may not deserve, some Republicans said, it’s not the Senate’s job to hold forth on a member of the president’s Cabinet.

“This is a nonbinding, irrelevant resolution proving what? Nothing,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. “Maybe we should be considering a vote of no confidence on the Senate or on the Congress for malfunction and an inability to produce anything.”

The vote cut across party lines.

Among the Republicans voted for the no-confidence resolution were four who had already called for a new attorney general: Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Joining them were Specter and Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Collins.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who often votes with the Democrats, voted no.

And Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, voted present. Federal agents investigating corruption in Alaska have probed the remodeling of Stevens’ home there. Stevens is not considered a target of the investigation, law enforcement officials familiar with the probe have told the Associated Press.

Those not voting included Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a presidential candidate who had called for Gonzales’ resignation.

House Democrats announced that Gonzales’ deputy, Paul McNulty, who has announced his resignation, would testify June 19 about his role in the U.S. attorney firings. Gonzales last month said he relied on McNulty more than any other aide to decide which U.S. attorneys should be fired last year. But internal Justice Department documents showed that McNulty was not closely involved in picking all of those fired.

And the Justice Department’s internal inspector general is investigating whether department officials improperly considered the party affiliation of candidates for career jobs there.

Majority Democrats toned down the language in their one-sentence resolution to attract more support from Republicans.

Stephens Media Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.

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