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Senate limits Gonzales' hiring authority

By PETE YOST and LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writers 13 minutes ago

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to end the Bush administration's ability to unilaterally fill U.S. attorney vacancies as a backlash to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' firing of eight federal prosecutors.

Amid calls from lawmakers in both parties to resign, Gonzales got a morale boost with an early-morning call from President Bush, their first conversation since a week ago, when the president said he was unhappy with how the Justice Department handled the firings.

With a 94-2 vote, the Senate passed a bill that canceled a Justice Department-authored provision in the Patriot Act that had allowed the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. Democrats say the Bush administration abused that authority when it fired the eight prosecutors and proposed replacing some with White House loyalists.

"If you politicize the prosecutors, you politicize everybody in the whole chain of law enforcement," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The bill, which has yet to be considered in the House, would set a 120-day deadline for the administration to appoint an interim prosecutor. If the interim appointment is not confirmed by the Senate in that time, a permanent replacement would be named by a federal district judge.

The vote came as Gonzales and the White House braced for more fallout from the firings. The White House also denied reports that it was looking for possible successors for Gonzales. "Those rumors are untrue," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.

Bush called Gonzales from the Oval Office at 7:15 a.m. EDT and they spoke for several minutes about the political uproar over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, an issue that has thrust the attorney general into controversy and raised questions about whether he can survive. The White House disclosed Bush's call to bolster Gonzales and attempt to rally Republicans to support him.

Meeting later with reporters, White House press secretary Tony Snow characterized Bush's call to the attorney general as "a very strong vote of confidence."

Snow said Bush believes the firings were justified.

"Let me put it this way: Nobody was removed for reasons of partisan recrimination; nor was anybody removed for the purposes of trying to influence the course of ongoing investigations," Snow said.

He called reports that Bush was seeking a replacement for Gonzales "just flat false, period."

Former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay had said earlier Tuesday that the scandal "is just a taste of what's going to be like for the next two years."

"And the Bush administration sort of showed their weakness when they got rid of Don Rumsfeld," the Texan said on NBC's "Today" show. "... This is a made up scandal. There is no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever. ... They ought to be fighting back."

Bush's call came as congressional investigators sifted through 3,000-pages of e-mails and other material concerning the dismissal of the prosecutors. Some of the documents spelled out fears in the Bush administration that the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys might not stand up to scrutiny.

The documents were not the end of the inquiry. House and Senate panels later in the week expected to approve subpoenas to White House aides Karl Rove, former counsel Harriet Miers and others. Miers' successor, Fred Fielding, was to tell the Judiciary Committees later Tuesday whether and under what conditions Bush would allow the officials to testify.

But the documents told more of the story of the run-up to the firings and the administration's attempt to choreograph them to reduce the bloodletting. It didn't work out that way -- the prosecutors were shocked and angered by the dismissals, the lack of explanation from the Justice Department and news reports that the administration fired the eight for performance reasons.

The documents that Congress will focus on in the coming days show that Gonzales was unhappy with how Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty explained the firings to the Senate Judiciary Committee in early February.

"The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning," Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who was traveling with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail. "He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate."

In a statement Monday night, Roehrkasse said he was referring to Gonzales' concerns over the firing of Bud Cummins in Little Rock, who he believed was dismissed because of performance issues. At the hearing, McNulty indicated Cummins was being replaced by a political ally.

Neither of the two most senior Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are stepping forward to endorse Gonzales, but likewise are not calling for his ouster. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said he will reserve judgment until he gets all the facts. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has not given interviews on the subject, his spokesman said.

Speculation has abounded over who might succeed Gonzales if he doesn't survive the current political tumult. Possible candidates include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, federal appeals judge Laurence Silberman and PepsiCo attorney Larry Thompson, who was the government's highest ranking black law enforcement official when he was deputy attorney general during Bush's first term.


On the Net:

House Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.house.gov