WASHINGTON - Sen. Arlen Specter, top Republican on the Senate committee investigating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said yesterday that he believed Gonzales could step down before a no-confidence vote sought this week by Senate Democrats.
Gonzales failed to draw a public statement of support from Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Asked whether Gonzales could lead the Justice Department effectively, McConnell said "that's for the president to decide." The senator suggested there may be several resolutions introduced to dilute a no-confidence vote.
"In the Senate, nobody gets a clear shot," McConnell said.
Yet Specter, of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believed a "sizable number" of GOP lawmakers would join Democrats in expressing their lack of confidence in the attorney general.
Five Republicans have urged Gonzales to resign over his firing of federal prosecutors, while several other Republicans have expressed criticism of his actions.
"Votes of no confidence are very rare," Specter said. "Historically, that is something which Attorney General Gonzales would like to avoid. I think that, if and when he sees that coming, he would prefer to avoid that kind of a historical black mark."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that Gonzales would not be affected by a potential vote of no confidence.
"As for no-confidence votes, maybe senators need a refresher course on American civics," Fratto said while with Bush at his Texas ranch. "I think you find no-confidence votes in parliamentary systems, not the American system of government."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Gonzales was concentrating on doing his job.
"As we work to ensure Congress has all the information it needs on this matter, the attorney general remains focused on the important work that the American people expect him to do," Roehrkasse said yesterday.
Specter long has made it clear that he believes the Justice Department no longer functions well because of Gonzales' handling of the prosecutor firings and that, as a result, Gonzales will step down.
But Specter's comments yesterday on CBS's Face the Nation raised the pressure on Gonzales and Bush, who has indicated Gonzales would not be leaving anytime soon.
Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California said they would seek a vote on a nonbinding resolution as early as this week to express what senators of both parties have said for weeks: that Gonzales has become too weakened to run the department.
A no-confidence vote, though symbolic, probably would create trouble for Gonzales. Any attorney general needs to work with Congress on legislation, as well as nominees who require Senate confirmation. Gonzales would need to confirm a new deputy attorney general because his current one, Paul McNulty, is leaving over the firings of federal prosecutors.
Gonzales will be in Washington today and part of tomorrow before heading to Europe to visit counterparts in Hungary and Switzerland and then join a conference of leading industrial nations Thursday in Germany. He will be back in Washington on Friday - before the long Memorial Day weekend and a planned congressional vacation.
Specter and other senators said they were particularly troubled by testimony last week that, when Gonzales was Bush's White House counsel, he pressured Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of Bush's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program while Ashcroft was hospitalized in intensive care.
In his testimony, former deputy attorney general James Comey said he thought the no-warrant program was questionable and violated the law. Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. then headed to Ashcroft's sick bed at George Washington University Hospital in an unsuccessful bid to convince Ashcroft otherwise. The program was eventually certified after it was modified.
Schumer sent a letter yesterday to Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, asking if they personally ordered Gonzales to Ashcroft's hospital room. When asked twice by reporters last week, Bush refused to answer.