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Gonzales to Make Crucial Appearance Before Senate Committee

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to testify before Congress on April 17 about his involvement in last year's firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales' testimony is seen as crucial to keeping his job since several Democrats and even a few Republicans have called for his resignation over the controversy involving the replacement of the federal prosecutors and suspicions they were fired for political reasons. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Attorney General Gonzales will be in the hot seat when he faces the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Democrat Charles Schumer of New York.

"More than any other cabinet official, the attorney general must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, and the more the facts come out, the more it seems the attorney general is not coming clean with what went on in the Justice Department in regard to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys," he said.

Democrats are expected to press Gonzales about the extent of his involvement in the firing of the prosecutors and the Justice Department's shifting explanations for their dismissal.

"What I know is that there began a process of evaluating strong performers, not as strong performers and weak performers. And, so as far as I knew, my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers," said Mr. Gonzales.

But the attorney general's former chief of staff told Congress that Gonzales signed off on the firings and that the federal prosecutors were dismissed because they did not sufficiently support President Bush's priorities.

Democrats say mixing politics with law enforcement is highly improper. Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I want the American people to have a Justice Department and U.S. attorneys' offices to enforce the law without regard to political influence and partisanship," he said. "It does not work unless you can be assured of that."

Gonzales has so far withstood calls to resign from both Democrats and Republicans.

President Bush is known for his loyalty to staff, especially those who have been with him since his days as governor of Texas.

But Rutgers University political analyst Ross Baker says there is another reason why the president may be reluctant to force Gonzales to leave.

"And particularly at a time when his [the president's] popularity ratings are very low in the public, I think he may fear that firing the attorney general would simply give his enemies more ammunition," he said.

Legal experts say the president has the right to hire and fire federal prosecutors, but he may have to answer to the public if it appears that politics is behind their dismissals.

Peter Smith is a professor at George Washington University Law School.

"The president has authority to fire them, has authority then, in theory, to dictate what sorts of prosecutions they should bring and, in theory, could fire them for political reasons," said Mr. Smith. "But we have a long tradition in this country of viewing prosecutors as being somehow above politics."

Democrats are demanding documents from the Bush administration about the firings and they want testimony under oath from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove.

Mr. Bush has so far resisted that demand. He says that forcing his aides to testify about private conversations would make it more difficult for a president to get candid advice from associates.

"We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," said Mr. Bush.

This clash between the president and Congress over the testimony of White House aides could theoretically wind up in the courts as a constitutional issue unless a compromise is reached.

But legal expert Peter Smith doubts that will happen.

"The way that most of these constitutional conflicts are resolved is through the operation of ordinary politics," he added. "One side, Congress or the president, is likely to back down, and that judgment is likely to be driven not by the law, that is the entitlement of Congress to require them to show up and of the president's authority to resist, but by the popularity of the respective positions."

Gonzales has served as attorney general since 2005 and was a White House counsel during the president's first term.