The Senate moved Monday to revoke new authority it granted the Bush administration last year to name federal prosecutors, with Democrats accusing the administration of abusing the appointment power at the center of an escalating clash over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
The move to overturn an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, which allowed the attorney general to appoint federal prosecutors for an indefinite period without Senate confirmation, came amid growing speculation that the controversy over the prosecutors would cost Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales his job.
President Bush has said he has confidence in Gonzales, but the White House seemed to offer only tepid support for him on Monday.
“Nobody is prophetic enough to know what the next 21 months hold,” the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, said when asked if Gonzales would remain until the end of Bush’s term. Bush has said Gonzales needs to repair his relations with Capitol Hill; asked if the attorney general had done so, Snow said, “I don’t know.”
At the Justice Department, neither Gonzales nor his staff have engaged in a major effort to reverse the erosion of his support among Republicans in Congress, associates said. Gonzales read budget briefing books over the weekend and on Monday he phoned one or two lawmakers, according to one aide, who declined to identify them.
Gonzales, who publicly apologized last week for his department’s handling of the dismissals, also acknowledged mistakes in a conference call with U.S. attorneys over the weekend.
On Capitol Hill on Monday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, joined a chorus of lawmakers who are calling for Gonzales to leave the administration.
“I believe we need a new attorney general,” Pelosi told the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune.
Members of both parties expressed support for repealing the Patriot Act provision, expected to be approved Tuesday. Lawmakers said the provision amounted to an end run around senators, who have long had influence in the appointment of home-state prosecutors. Some senators said the provision was used to clear the way for firing prosecutors and replacing them with candidates considered more in line with the administration.
“We can’t trust this administration to use that authority in a fair and constructive manner,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who helped begin an inquiry into the dismissals by objecting to the administration’s choice for his state. “They have proven it to us.”
As the Senate prepared to repeal the provision, the new chief counsel to Bush, Fred F. Fielding, spent Monday preparing a response for Democrats who are demanding testimony from Karl Rove and other top aides to Bush, including the former counsel, Harriet E. Miers.