WASHINGTON -- Republican support for embattled Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales continued to evaporate yesterday as the third-ranking leader in the House and an influential senator said that Gonzales should consider resigning.
A day after failing to mollify members of the Senate Judiciary Committee over his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales launched a last-ditch effort to save his job in phone calls to congressional leaders. But the tide of opinion on Capitol Hill appeared to be turning against him.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, became the highest-ranking House Republican to call for Gonzales to step down, declaring yesterday, "It's time for fresh leadership."
"There's been an erosion of confidence certainly in the Congress in his ability to continue to lead" the Justice Department, said Putnam.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and a member of the Judiciary panel, urged Gonzales to spend the weekend reflecting on his leadership and then have a "frank" discussion with the White House.
"If he and the president decide that he cannot be an effective leader moving forward, then he should resign," said Sessions. "As he said during the hearing, 'It's not about Al Gonzales.' The bottom line is that he must do what is in the best interest of the Department of Justice."
The White House, meanwhile, continued to express support for the attorney general.
Sessions, a U.S. attorney for 12 years and a reliable administration ally, is considered a bellwether of Republican opinion. Like Putnam, he had been previously critical of Gonzales' handling of the firings, but had stopped short of advocating or suggesting his dismissal.
Gonzales suffered through a withering attack on his credibility Thursday as he struggled to explain his role in the series of events leading up to the dismissal of eight Republican-appointed prosecutors last year.
He has been criticized for giving shifting explanations about the level of his involvement, and his appearance Thursday raised even more questions. He testified that he ordered the firing of two of the prosecutors without having any independent knowledge of problems with their performance.
That has fueled Democratic charges that the firings were aimed at affecting public corruption prosecutions in ways that would benefit Republicans. But the hearings have not produced any evidence of that.
Gonzales received some votes of confidence yesterday, but they were muted.
"Although his answers suggested that there were serious managerial issues at the Department of Justice, I did not see a factual basis to call for his resignation," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican of Kansas, another member of the Judiciary Committee. "As for whether the attorney general should resign, that is a question I leave to him and to the President."
Aides said Gonzales reached out to several members of Congress yesterday, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Specter was among the most critical of Gonzales at the hearing on Thursday but did not call for him to resign.
After having cleared his calendar in recent weeks to prepare for the hearings, Gonzales returned to a more normal routine yesterday. He attended a ceremony honoring people who assist and support crime victims. The White House announced that Bush was appointing him to a task force to work with states in addressing some of the questions raised by the shootings at Virginia Tech.
The Justice Department said he would participate in a news conference Monday afternoon about a new program with the Federal Trade Commission to address identity theft.
Asked yesterday if Bush was interviewing candidates to succeed Gonzales, Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters, "Not that I'm aware of, no."
She said that Bush had spoken to Gonzales after he testified and that the president was "pleased that the hearing had finally been held." She said Gonzales "continues to have the president's full confidence."
"I can understand there are some people who still don't want to support the attorney general; that is their right. But he has done a fantastic job at the Department of Justice. He is our number-one crime fighter," Perino said.
Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.