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Senate panel reacts to firings of U.S. attorneys

A Senate panel advanced a bill Thursday to curb the Justice Department's power to replace federal prosecutors after seven forced resignations sparked accusations of political favoritism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Senate panel advanced a bill Thursday to curb the Justice Department’s power to replace federal prosecutors after seven forced resignations sparked accusations of political favoritism.

The Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to send the measure to the Senate floor, where it is certain to face opposition from Republicans who oppose giving more appointment power to federal judges.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get it to the floor next week,” said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“It’ll be over my objection,” shot back Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona.

The House is expected to begin hearings on a similar bill next month.

Three Republicans, Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, joined all the panel’s Democrats in backing the bill.

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and may be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all. It’s the process of replacement that, the bill’s proponents argue, should prevent political cronyism.

Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the measure would eliminate a provision in the antiterror Patriot Act that gave the attorney general new power to replace fired U.S. attorneys indefinitely, avoiding the Senate confirmation process.

Feinstein’s bill would allow the attorney general to appoint an interim U.S. attorney for 120 days. If after that time someone had not been nominated and confirmed by the Senate, authority to appoint an interim U.S. attorney would fall to the district court.

‘We are disappointed’
The bill would apply to any interim U.S. attorneys who have not been confirmed, including those appointed to replace the seven prosecutors who have been fired since the Patriot Act reauthorization went into effect, according to a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The Justice Department opposes the bill, saying the attorney general’s authority to choose prosecutors should not be handed to courts because district court judges, they contend, are often unqualified to make such decisions. Kyl said he would remove his objection if Reid agreed to remove the provision giving district court judges the 120-day backup power to appoint interim prosecutors.

“We are disappointed by congressional efforts to restrict our ability to appoint our own employees for temporary periods of time while a permanent nominee is selected,” said Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.

Senate Democratic leaders sent Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a letter Thursday asking him to publicly answer several questions about the matter, including any role that presidential adviser Karl Rove might have had in replacing Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins with former Rove adviser Tim Griffin.

Senate Democrats accuse the administration of slipping the provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization that took effect last March with the intent of circumventing the Senate confirmation process and rewarding political allies. Specter, who wrote the reauthorization as chairman of the committee, says he was unaware of the provision and opposes it.

‘I was ordered to resign’
The Democrats cite the firings since March of seven U.S. attorneys from Arkansas to California, some without cause, as evidence that the administration is punishing prosecutors whose work targeted Republican allies and rewarding those faithful to the GOP.

Gonzales has denied that charge and promised to submit every replacement for Senate confirmation.

Earlier this week, his deputy, Paul McNulty, told the panel that some of the ousted prosecutors were fired for performance-related causes he would not describe, while others were asked to leave without cause.

Democrats demanded the performance reports of all seven dismissed prosecutors and threatened to subpoena the material. McNulty cautioned that the reports might not detail any reasons for dismissal.

The panel’s action came a day after one of those fired, former U.S. Attorney John McKay of Washington state, said his resignation was ordered by the administration without explanation seven months after he received a favorable job evaluation.

“I was ordered to resign as U.S. attorney on Dec. 7 by the Justice Department,” McKay, who led the Justice Department’s Western Washington office, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I was given no explanation. I certainly was told of no performance issues.”

The Seattle Times reported Thursday that in his last performance review, McKay received a highly favorable report from a 27-member team from the Justice Department’s Evaluation and Review Staff.