WASHINGTON -- The White House called on Senate Democrats yesterday to move up the appearance of embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying the longer the scandal continues over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the more damage will be done to federal law enforcement operations.
At the same time, the GOP leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered the attorney general only tepid support, joining a number of Republican lawmakers no longer willing to put their personal imprimatur on Gonzales keeping his job.
Asked directly whether he had confidence in Gonzales, McConnell responded: "I can honestly say the president does."
Pressed further on Fox News Sunday, he added, "I think most Republican senators are willing to give the attorney general a chance to come up before the Judiciary Committee and give his side of the story."
Gonzales' testimony before the Senate panel is scheduled April 17 - a date shaping up as his opportunity to explain why the prosecutors were fired and what involvement the White House might have had in their dismissals.
More important, Democrats want Gonzales to square a number of conflicting statements he has made about his role in the terminations.
He has said that he had only minimal discussions about the firings, but Justice Department documents released in the past few weeks show that he attended an hourlong meeting before giving the go-ahead on which prosecutors to replace.
"Let's move it up, and let's get to the facts," White House senior adviser Dan Bartlett said on ABC's This Week. "Let's have the attorney general there soon rather than later."
Bartlett, whose title is counselor to the president, offered no specific date. The Senate, in recess this week, is scheduled to reconvene April 10.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, speaking on CBS's Face the Nation, agreed that an earlier date would be better.
"It's very important for the country that we clear the air and get the Justice Department back functioning," said Specter, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "I believe there is a very heavy overhang there. The morale is low."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who serves as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would prefer to stick to April 17, which was Gonzales' preferred date, even though he said administration officials asked him Saturday to move up the hearing. He said he told them no.
Leahy noted that his panel, as well as its counterpart in the House, was still reviewing thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents, and that the House Judiciary Committee has just begun interviewing senior Justice Department officials.
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.