WASHINGTON -- A top Democrat predicted yesterday that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would be forced from his job within a week for the Justice Department's mishandling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
"The White House has a real chance to clear the air, to restore faith that the rule of law will come first and politics second in the Justice Department, not the other way around," Schumer, who is leading the Senate's inquiry into the firings, said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Another top Senate Democrat said he will insist that key White House officials testify under oath when they're called before Congress to discuss the firings. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said on ABC's This Week that he's "sick and tired" of the administration's changing explanation for the dismissals.
The Judiciary Committee's top Republican said Congress should consider writing legislation that would require the Justice Department to show cause if it wants to remove a U.S. attorney.
"Congress has the constitutional authority to set some parameters and guidelines," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said on Fox News Sunday. "We don't really want to interfere with the president's basic right to set policy. If he wants immigration cases emphasized, his U.S. attorneys ought to do that. Whatever classifications he wants ought to be followed. But we're learning from this experience. If we find there's a way to better regulate this kind of a situation, Congress ought to act."
Congress has opened an investigation into why the U.S. attorneys were fired last year amid speculation that the dismissals might have been intended to squash politically sensitive investigations. The Bush administration initially said the dismissals were based on performance issues, but most of the prosecutors had received good job evaluations.
E-mails between White House and Justice Department officials released last week indicated that politics played a role. Loyalty to President Bush and Gonzales were among the criteria for a good evaluation, the e-mails showed. Some of the fired prosecutors had undertaken high-profile investigations of Republicans as well, though the released e-mails did not explicitly mention those probes.
The Justice Department is expected to release more e-mails today, and the White House is expected to tell Congress tomorrow whether it will invoke executive privilege to prevent Bush political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers from testifying.
The House and Senate are also scheduled this week to vote to repeal the law quietly passed last year that stripped the Senate's power to reject interim U.S. attorneys the administration might pick to replace ousted prosecutors.
Lawmakers from both parties said that if Gonzales is to remain on the job he must demonstrate soon that he is moving to fix concerns that his department has been politicized.
"By giving inaccurate information, by not giving complete information ... it's caused a real firestorm and he'd better get the facts out," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on This Week.
On Fox, one of the ousted prosecutors, H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas, said that if Gonzales was out of the loop he shouldn't necessarily have to resign but that if he knew how much input the White House had into the firings, "then maybe he does need to resign."
The three lawyers Schumer suggested Democrats might support to replace Gonzales are:
Michael B. Mukasey, who returned last year to the private sector after serving as chief U.S. District Court judge of the southern district of New York. Mukasey, a Reagan administration nominee, presided over the terrorism trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 co-defendants.
Larry Thompson, who left the Justice Department in 2003 after serving as deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft. Thompson focused on terrorism and corporate crime, including a role in going after Enron Corp.
James Comey, who left the Justice Department in 2005 after serving as Thompson's replacement. Comey is trusted by some Democrats because of his perceived discomfort with some of the administration's terrorism surveillance policies and because he named U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor in the CIA leak case that ended with the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.