Congressional Democrats and some Republicans are trying to change part of the USA Patriot Act that allows the Bush administration to fire and replace federal prosecutors indefinitely without Senate confirmation.
Freshly briefed by the Justice Department on the forced resignations of some of the seven U.S. attorneys since the act took effect, Senate Democrats planned to bring a bill to the floor Thursday that would impose a 120-day deadline on the amount of time a replacement could serve without Senate confirmation.
After that, an interim replacement would be named by a U.S. District Court, a policy Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and some Republicans say could lead to the appointments of prosecutors for reasons other than their qualifications.
Democrats say that’s just the problem with the policy under the terror-fighting law that went into effect in March.
Several prosecutors fired recently
Since then, seven U.S. attorneys have been fired, some without cause, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats contend that prosecutors were forced to resign to make way for Republican political allies, and that the White House slipped the provision into the Patriot Act to permit such indefinite appointments.
Congress passed the reauthorization with overwhelming bipartisan support, but many lawmakers say they were unaware of the provision. The president appoints federal prosecutors, who are subject to Senate confirmation.
Gonzales has said he intends to submit every newly appointed interim prosecutor to the Senate confirmation process and denied that his choices were politically motivated. He also has pointed out that U.S. attorneys serve at the president’s pleasure and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all.
Reid may seek vote Thursday
Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is expected to try to bring the bill up for a vote Thursday, which also is the last day on the job of one of the fired prosecutors, Carol Lam of San Diego.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said last week he would try to block the bill unless Reid agreed to strip out the appointment power of the U.S. District Court.
McNulty briefed senators behind closed doors Wednesday night on the cases of the seven fired prosecutors. Attending the meeting were Republicans Kyl and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of Washington.
Afterward, Murray said she heard nothing to suggest that the U.S. attorney in her state, John McKay, deserved to be fired. She and other participants refused to comment further.
Earlier this month, McNulty told the committee that most of the seven had been fired for “performance-related” reasons, and that one in Arkansas, Bud Cummins, had been cleared out to make way for a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove.
However, McKay and others had received glowing performance reviews and were not told of performance issues before they were fired, prompting further investigation by the committee.