A U.S. Senate committee has taken the first steps toward requesting testimony from Bush administration officials in connection with the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year by the Justice Department. The dismissals have created a political firestorm for President Bush amid calls from Democrats and at least one Republican that Mr. Bush fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. National correspondent Jim Malone has the latest on the controversy from Washington.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to authorize subpoenas if necessary to force testimony from Justice Department officials who were involved in the firings of the federal prosecutors last year.
The action was driven by demands from Democrats to find out the reasons for the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys.
Among those looking for answers is Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
"This purge was based purely on politics," he said. "To punish prosecutors who were perceived to be too light on Democrats or too tough on Republicans."
Democrats contend that some of the prosecutors were fired, because they were not tough enough in pursuing voter fraud investigations prior to last November's congressional elections.
But President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have defended the firings as legitimate and within their powers.
Mr. Bush says it is now up to the attorney general to assure Congress that the dismissals were handled appropriately.
"U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, in other words, they are appointed by the president, they can be removed by the president," he said. "What was mishandled was the explanation of the case."
U.S. attorneys are responsible for upholding federal law in various geographic districts around the country. They are appointed by the president, can be removed for any reason and historically belong to the same political party as the president.
Attorney General Gonzales told NBC's Today program the dismissal of the prosecutors was not the result of a political vendetta.
"These firings were not politically motivated," he said. "They were not done in retaliation. They were not done to interfere with a public corruption case."
But some of the eight prosecutors recently testified before Congress and said they felt pressured from Republican lawmakers to be more aggressive in voter fraud investigations involving Democrats.
The former U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, was fired several weeks after getting phone calls from two Republican members of Congress who wanted to know the progress of corruption investigations involving Democrats.
"I felt leaned on, I felt pressure to get these matters moving," he noted.
Several Democrats and at least one Republican senator want the president to dismiss Attorney General Gonzales for the way in which the prosecutor firings were handled.
At the very least, Democrats are demanding hearings about the dismissals and want to hear from officials within the Justice Department and the White House.
"Several [of the fired prosecutors] had significant achievements in office and glowing performance reviews and it makes one wonder whether they were too effective and too good in their performance and perhaps too independent for the administration," said Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "What were the real motivations for the firing?"
Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl says Democrats are making too much of the controversy, noting that President Clinton replaced all 93 U.S. attorneys when he took office in 1993.
"These are political appointments and these people are supposed to follow the priorities established by the president and the attorney general," he explained.
But Democrat Dianne Feinstein has a different view of how U.S. attorneys are supposed to act once in office.
"And the inference from all of this is that they are beholden to a White House as a political appointment might be," she said. "And yet the moment these officials take the oath of office, they are beholden to only one group of people, and that is the people of the United States. Mr. Gonzales is not the attorney general for the White House, he is the attorney general for the people of the United States and every single U.S. attorney has to have an objectivity and an independence, a willingness to pursue facts wherever those facts lead them."
The congressional focus on the prosecutor firings is the latest example of how last year's victories by Democrats in the congressional elections are having political consequences for the Bush administration.
Jim VandeHei is with the Politico, a political Web site based in Washington. He says the Democrats' ability to force testimony and answers from Bush administration officials could keep the White House on the defensive for much of the remainder of the president's term.
"Now that Democrats have subpoena power, they really have a lot of control over this White House," he explained. "They can now not just ask for information, they can demand information."
Justice Department officials initially told Congress that most of the prosecutors who were removed had poor performance ratings. But several of the fired U.S. attorneys told Congress they had been given strong evaluations by the department and were not told the reason for their dismissal.