Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confidently deflected House Democrats' demands Thursday for details in the firings of U.S. attorneys, appearing ever more likely to survive accusations that the dismissals were politically motivated.
Republican lawmakers rushed to Gonzales' defense as the attorney general denied anew that the firings last year were improper.
The mostly muted five-hour hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee was a sharp contrast to Gonzales' sometimes testy appearance three weeks ago when Senate Republicans questioned his competence to run the Justice Department. One senator at that session joined a small GOP chorus saying he should step down.
"I will work as hard as I can, working with this committee and working with DOJ employees, to reassure the American people that this department is focused on doing its job," Gonzales said Thursday.
That didn't satisfy exasperated Democrats who accused Gonzales of being evasive.
"Your reputation is on the line, Mr. Attorney General. What do you have to say for yourself?" asked Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., adding that the "buck stops at the top."
"I accept responsibility," Gonzales answered,
President Bush has steadfastly stood by Gonzales, his longtime counselor and friend. Even career Justice Department staffers angered by the attorney general's response to the firings concede Gonzales appears to have beaten back calls to leave.
‘The list of accusations has mushroomed’
Republicans sought to portray the controversy as losing steam, and they pushed their Democratic counterparts to wrap up the congressional probe that has dogged the Justice Department since the beginning of the year.
"The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the committee. "If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues."
Still, Gonzales acknowledged low morale at the department. Career prosecutors have said that is stunting hiring, and private defense attorneys say it has led to government hesitation and indecisiveness in some courtrooms. Gonzales maintained, however, that the department's independence is intact.
"Contrary to being gun shy, this process is somewhat liberating in terms of going forward," he said.
Gonzales repeatedly said he was unaware of many of the factors leading up to the dismissals because he relied on his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to carry them out. He also said he could not clarify parts of the firing process that remain murky in his own mind while investigations of the dismissals continue.
He said he has "no basis to believe" that Todd Graves, the former prosecutor in Kansas City, Mo., left in early 2006 because he refused to endorse Justice Department allegations about voter fraud in Missouri. Gonzales praised the work of Debra Yang, formerly the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, who resigned in October to take a higher paying job at a private firm.
Neither Graves nor Yang are among the eight prosecutors whose dismissals are being investigated, but questions about their resignations have recently surfaced.
‘I cannot talk about that’
Gonzales denied that Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, demanded last fall's ouster of then-New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias. But he acknowledged that Rove had complained about stagnant voter fraud cases in three districts, including New Mexico, and noted those concerns were echoed by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
Those complaints spurred suspicions that Iglesias was improperly fired because he refused to target Democrats.
On the other side, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner leaned on Gonzales on Thursday to speed the department's corruption investigation of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.
"Congressman, you know I cannot talk about that," Gonzales told Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
"Well, everybody's talking about it except you," Sensenbrenner answered. "The people's confidence in your department has been further eroded, separate and apart from the U.S. attorney controversy, because of the delay in dealing with this matter."
Protestors but few new facts
Thursday's hearing served up more political bickering but few new facts about the firings.
At one point, as many as nine Capitol Police officers escorted a half-dozen protesters from the room out of concern they would disrupt the hearing.
Despite Committee Chairman John Conyers' plea that the hearing focus on the fired prosecutors, Republicans asked Gonzales about a range of topics, including terrorism and intellectual property theft. For his part, Gonzales mostly stuck to a script of accepting responsibility and pushing beyond the controversy - to Democrats' obvious skepticism.
"You have a situation where most people believe that you didn't tell the truth about the U.S. attorneys," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "If most people believe that the United States attorney general has not told the truth about why these U.S. attorneys were fired, how can they have confidence in your job?"
"I don't believe that's an accurate statement," Gonzales responded. "And what I'm trying to do in appearances like this is to set the record straight."