WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, told by President Bush to repair relations with Congress over his handling of the U.S. attorneys affair, appeared to take a step backward yesterday, suffering new and withering criticism from senators of both parties, including questions about his judgment, candor and fitness to serve.
Grim-faced and contrite, Gonzales, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what one lawmaker called a "reconfirmation hearing," apologized for what he described as a flawed process in which a group of young political appointees at the Justice Department led a review that resulted in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
He denied, however, that any improper motives had fueled the dismissals, as Democrats have insinuated, and said he felt they were "justified" in hindsight.
Gonzales has been fighting for his job because he has offered shifting explanations about how closely he was involved in the firings of the prosecutors, who serve as the arms of the Justice Department around the country. He initially denied at a news conference last month that he was involved in discussions about the purge. He modified his remarks after internal Justice Department documents showed that he had participated in meetings where the prosecutors' fate was discussed.
"Those eight attorneys deserved better," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressing regret that the dismissals had become an "undignified public spectacle."
Gonzales said that he still believed he could be an effective attorney general, and that his decisions to turn over thousands of department documents to congressional investigators were "not the actions of someone with something to hide."
"It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for political gain," he said. "I did not do that. I would never do that."
But, even as he was trying to mend relations with members yesterday and set the record straight, Gonzales fumbled, raising new questions about his inability to recall basic information.
The still-unanswered questions included who precisely identified the prosecutors to be fired, when Gonzales approved that decision and what he personally knew about the attorneys' performance before deciding to show them the door.
Gonzales testified that the list was the product of a "consensus recommendation of people that I trusted," and admitted that he knew little to nothing about two of seven of the prosecutors who were fired on a single day last December.
Several lawmakers said the reasons Gonzales offered for the dismissals, including poor management and a lack of "energy," sounded contrived, and some of the toughest criticism came from fellow Republicans.
"The way this investigation has been handled has just been really deplorable," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
"The best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn bluntly told Gonzales, becoming the second Republican member of Congress to call for Gonzales to quit.
That Gonzales will be forced to step aside is far from certain.
The hearing produced no evidence to support the most provocative claim of his critics - that the firings were orchestrated to affect public corruption cases in a way that would aid Republicans.
Bush, who has said he was troubled that both parties had felt Gonzales had not been straight with them over the firings, was "pleased" with the performance, the White House said yesterday in a prepared statement.
"After hours of testimony in which he answered all of the senators' questions and provided thousands of pages of documents, he again showed that nothing improper occurred," said spokeswoman Dana Perino. "The attorney general has the full confidence of the president, and he appreciates the work he is doing at the Department of Justice."
While fuming about the lack of detail that Gonzales offered - he answered "I don't recall" more than 70 times - the Congress is powerless to remove him from office.
"I think your credibility has been significantly impaired," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary committee. "And you have been a forceful witness, and you have had a lot of staying power. But we haven't gotten real answers."
Though apparently perturbed, Specter said he was not going to call for Gonzales to resign, saying the decision was for Gonzales and Bush.
Even Democrats, who are driving an intensive investigation into the origins and execution of the firings, conceded they were unable to achieve a knockout blow against Gonzales.
"There was no smoking gun, but Gonzales and his cause took 10 to 20 steps back," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters after the hearing.
Schumer, perhaps Gonzales' most outspoken critic, said the hearing showed the need to obtain testimony and records from the White House to fully understand how the eight prosecutors were targeted.
The White House has offered to send officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, to Capitol Hill to answer questions about the firings, but only in private and without a transcript. Schumer and other lawmakers have said those terms are unsatisfactory, and are threatening to subpoena the officials.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.