WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales survived a climactic no-confidence vote yesterday, and with the support of the White House, appears to have weathered a months-long storm of criticism and investigation that once imperiled his two-year tenure at the Justice Department.
Most Republicans, even those who had been critical of Gonzales, closed ranks, and Democrats fell well short of winning the votes necessary to move forward with a resolution declaring that the Senate and the "American people" had lost confidence in the embattled attorney general. Senate Democrats' attempt to bring up the resolution got 53 of the 60 votes needed to end unlimited debate.
Democrats vowed to continue their investigation into whether Gonzales, in tandem with the White House, had politicized hiring decisions and various investigations at the Justice Department in ways that would boost Republicans. There were signs that Democrats were on the verge of taking that investigation to a new level, possibly by issuing subpoenas to the White House for documents and testimony of such figures as political operative Karl Rove.
But the no-confidence vote suggests that the Democrats do not have the political might to force the issue.
Gonzales had already won a vote of confidence from President Bush weeks ago. "There is only one vote that matters, and he's got it," said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant with ties to the White House.
Supporters of a similar resolution in the House said they feared that, after the Senate vote, the House leadership would table the measure.
"My sense based on initial discussions with leaders is that they are not likely to bring this to the floor," if the Senate did not act first, Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat, said in an interview. The former prosecutor said he thought the leaders were mistaken because the House is a significant body in its own right, not burdened with some of the Senate's procedural traditions of cloture and filibuster.
The Justice Department issued a statement following the vote declaring that Gonzales "remains focused on the important issues that the American people expect him to address." Observing that his term expires with Bush's in 18 months, Gonzales told reporters in Miami yesterday that he was planning on "sprinting to the finish line" with a full agenda of initiatives.
Hours before the debate, Bush, winding up a European tour before returning to Washington, dismissed the vote as a "meaningless resolution" that would not chase his attorney general - and long-time friend and adviser - from office.
How effective Gonzales is for the balance of the Bush presidency is far from clear, however. With Democrats holding the purse strings, it is unlikely that Congress will back major new Justice Department initiatives.
Another department priority, a major new anti-crime bill, also seems problematic. Among other goals, the legislation attempts to revive a series of mandatory sentencing guidelines for criminals, which Democrats had doubts about even before Gonzales's problems became a focus.
The investigation exposed what lawmakers view as serious credibility problems with Gonzales, and raised questions about his management of the department.
Beginning with the politically charged firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, the probe has since expanded to include whether politics infected the hiring of career employees throughout the department, including in its storied civil rights divisions. Investigators are also examining whether there was a conscious effort to pursue cases of voter fraud in battleground states that could benefit Republican candidates. The Justice Department has also launched an internal review into whether department regulations and civil-service laws were broken in the hiring of career personnel under Gonzales.
Gonzales, who once wrote off the U.S. attorney affair as an "overblown personnel matter," has acknowledged that he made incomplete statements to the public about the matter.
While he plans to stay, four other officials, including his former chief of staff and senior counselor, have resigned.
In two hours of debate yesterday, few Republicans offered an outright endorsement of the attorney general. Rather, they cast the no-confidence vote as a political ploy by Democrats that took valuable time from debate over issues of import to ordinary citizens, such as immigration reform and gasoline prices.
"Is this what the business of the Senate is really about? A nonbinding resolution proving what? Nothing," said Minority Whip Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "That is not our job. We don't have the authority to make that determination," Lott said. "This is all about partisan politics. Nobody is fooled by this."
But Democrats said the Justice Department had lost its way under Gonzales, and that he had lost credibility with Congress and the public.
Some of the harshest words came from Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of seven Republicans to vote with Democrats on the resolution.
Specter said Gonzales misled the public by testifying that he was not involved in the discussions leading to the firing of the U.S. attorneys last year - statements that Specter said had been "contradicted" by three top aides and internal Justice documents.
Specter also said Gonzales misled the Congress last year when he testified that there were no serious objections within the Justice Department about the legality of a warrant-less electronic surveillance program the administration began after Sept. 11. The Senate probe has revealed that a group led by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey refused to endorse the program because they said they believed it violated federal law.
Maryland's senators, Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, both voted for the measure.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.