The White House said Sunday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is willing and even eager to testify on Capitol Hill before his scheduled appearance on April 17. But Senate Democrats rejected the offer and plan to use the interim to build a case against him.
During a press availability in Mexico on March 14, President Bush said he had talked that morning with Gonzales "about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made, making very clear about the facts."
One of the mysteries of the administration's handling of the controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys is why the attorney general has let more than two weeks pass without going to Capitol Hill. As a result, Bush and his spokespeople are constantly asked about the matter, as congressional Democrats sharpen their knives, and as Gonzales' friends and subordinates report increasing disillusionment and frustration.
Now White House aides are contending that Gonzales wants to talk before April 17 and that Democrats won't let him. But Senate Democrats counter that the administration's eagerness for Gonzales to testify is new – transparently timed to coincide with Congress' spring recess – and that the administration initially rejected an offer for Gonzales to testify earlier than April 17.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said on ABC's "This Week" that Democrats could do a few things if they want to signal that they're setting aside partisan politics. "First, the Senate Judiciary Committee should move up the attorney general's scheduled hearing date from April 17 to next week," Bartlett said. "That is something that the attorney general has requested from the committee. Let's move it up and let's get to the facts."
An administration official told Politico that on Saturday, Gonzales asked a senior aide, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Richard A. Hertling, to find out if the April 17 appearance could be moved up.
However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that the administration's request this weekend for Gonzales to testify the week of April 9 is a reversal of its original preference of April 17. "You know, we had offered a much earlier date to the attorney general, and they flatly turned it down. We offered a number of dates. They flatly turned them down, and they picked the date of April 17," Leahy said.
He said the hearing will be held as originally planned, on April 17.
The Judiciary Committee is the place where Gonzales has the most pressing work to do, since he told the panel in January that he would "never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons." That assertion came into question after the Justice Department sent Capitol Hill e-mail records on the subject of the firings.
Gonzales has since clarified his statement, telling NBC's Pete Williams last week that the eight controversial firings were "not for partisan reasons" and "not for improper reasons."
Last week, the Justice Department did not indicate whether the attorney general would be willing to appear earlier than April 17. He is scheduled to appear that day for a regular oversight hearing that is likely to cover other matters, including allegations by an inspector general that the FBI has been insufficiently judicious in its use of national security letters, which allow investigators to obtain individuals' telephone, e-mail and financial records.
Whatever happened in the past, the date is likely to stay at April 17. "There is no intention to move it up," the Senate's second in command, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said when he followed Bartlett on ABC.
On CBS's "Face the Nation," another member of the panel, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the staff will use the interim to amass ammunition by interviewing lower-level officials in the Justice Department. Because the interviews will be conducted under oath, in private, and with a transcript, Schumer said the process allows committee aides to lay the factual groundwork before putting Gonzales on the stand.
"So, I think to rush this and then have the attorney general say, 'Well, I don't know,' when if you prepared it properly you could say, 'Well, Mr. So-and-so says you were at this meeting,'" he said. "That's why we have to wait."
On a related matter, Judiciary Committee members of both parties suggested a compromise to the White House offer for current and former officials to testify – but behind closed doors.
Schumer said on CBS that "a real basis for agreement" would be to have "White House people come in with a transcript – you have to have a transcript – but privately, at first. And we can reserve judgment as to whether we need them publicly, afterward."
The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said that sounded acceptable. "I believe that the transcript is indispensable, because if you don't have a transcript, you will walk out of the meeting and senators will, in perfectly good faith, have disagreements," Specter said. "So it's got to be in writing."
Specter said his preference for the Gonzales testimony "would be to do it at the earliest possible date."
Bartlett, appearing on CBS after the senators, said the transcript was not the only bone of contention and that Democrats "are asking for documents that we feel … go to executive privilege."
"If they wanted to get to the bottom of it," Bartlett said, "they would accept the proposal the president's put forward. They would have the attorney general up there next week, having the testimony in open hearing, on the record, for everybody to see. Because the attorney general has made clear that while the explanation of what they did has not been good, that his role in this has been to sign off on the final list, participate in meetings with regards to the implementation of it."
The attorney general had been scheduled to speak to a National Press Club luncheon on April 16. The club now says that appearance has been "postponed." No new date was announced.
By Mike Allen
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