Sen. Pete Domenici, known as the quintessential straight shooter in the mannerly Senate, is an unlikely figure to be caught up in the political scandal over federal prosecutor firings.
An elder statesman with an untarnished reputation during his six terms, the New Mexico Republican commands equal parts affectionate respect and fear in Congress for his power, his loyalty, and his sometimes bullying ways.
It’s his cantankerous streak — well known to colleagues who have tangled with him on budget and spending matters — that may have landed the 74-year-old Domenici at the center of the growing furor.
Revelations that Domenici phoned one of the ousted U.S. attorneys and complained to President Bush and the Justice Department about him helped touch off a larger congressional investigation into the firings, which has embarrassed the administration, threatened the job of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and sparked a showdown between the White House and Congress over whether Bush’s aides should have to testify.
Domenici, who faces re-election next fall, is dealing with troubling consequences of his own.
He’s under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee after a watchdog group accused him of trying to pressure David Iglesias, then the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., to rush a corruption probe against Democrats in an effort to sway the 2006 elections.
Domenici has hired prominent Washington lawyer Lee Blalack, best known for defending jailed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., against bribery charges.
It’s an improbable spot for a senator revered for his mastery of Senate rules and procedures, whose low-key style and familiarity in the halls of Congress have earned him bipartisan goodwill and the nickname “Uncle Pete.”
“It’s very out of character, so I think people are a little puzzled and sad for him more than anything else,” said Chris Garcia, a University of New Mexico political scientist. “It’s uncomfortable for him, and somewhat of an embarrassment for everybody.”
Domenici is a fierce advocate for his state, where he’s a formidable political powerbroker and is beloved for his prowess in drawing coveted federal dollars to projects and agencies.
‘I’ve had some tough phone calls’
In Congress, lawmakers, aides and reporters know Domenici can be brusque when he feels strongly about something. He’s been known to phone colleagues to register dismay or check the status of a top priority — and then to hang up briskly when he’s finished without saying goodbye.
Iglesias has described being on the other end of one such call. He said Domenici — his one-time patron for the job of U.S. attorney — called him at home last fall to ask whether he planned to file corruption charges before the November elections. When told it was unlikely, according to Iglesias’ account, Domenici responded, “I am very sorry to hear that,” and then the line went dead.
Both Domenici and Iglesias declined to comment for this story. The senator has acknowledged calling Iglesias about the case, and said he regretted doing so, but he denies he pressured the ousted prosecutor.
“I’ve had some tough phone calls with him, but he didn’t intimidate me,” said Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, who has tussled with Domenici in spending negotiations.
Domenici “can be difficult to work with,” Hobson added. “He always advocates his position, and he’s very frank — you know where he stands — but he’s also effective.”
The Senate’s second-most senior Republican, Domenici was either chairman or senior GOP member on the Budget Committee for more than two decades before stepping aside in 2006 to take the helm of the Energy panel.
He’s usually an understated presence on Capitol Hill, where he wears sportcoats instead of business suits, but he is fervent about certain things: balancing the budget, promoting nuclear power and defending his state.
Domenici is “dogged — he doesn’t fight to lose,” said Robert Stevenson, a former senior aide. “He can be tenacious. There are things he feels passionate about, and he makes no secret about it.”
‘I’m not going to judge’
Colleagues and political observers say they don’t know enough about the case to judge Domenici’s conduct. Some of them noted that it’s not unusual for a member of Congress to phone a state or local prosecutor for a status report on a case, although Senate guidelines advise against intervening in pending court actions.
Domenici’s office referred questions to his attorneys, who declined to comment.
Garcia said some believe the senator “maybe got a little careless,” after several years of Republican domination of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Domenici has experienced health problems in recent years, including bursitis in his hip that had him zipping around the Capitol in a scooter for several months, and nerve damage in his arm that’s a relic of his short stint as a baseball pitcher.
More recently, there have been whispers that the senator is getting forgetful and increasingly temperamental in his old age. His supporters angrily dismiss those reports as Democratic efforts to undermine Domenici’s popularity and loosen his seemingly unshakable grasp on his Senate seat.
It’s unclear whether the case will do Domenici lasting damage.
“He has a lot of close personal relationships with other senators, and I don’t think this changes the nature of those personal relationships,” said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said Domenici’s ties to the prosecutor uproar has put longtime colleagues in an awkward spot.
“What Senator Domenici did under what circumstances, I don’t know, so I’m not going to judge him,” Durbin said. “I just think it’s inappropriate for a member of Congress to contact a U.S. attorney or a prosecutor and to urge a prosecution in a political context.”