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A more confident Gonzales deflects questions at hearing

His appearance before the House committee was in marked contrast to one three weeks ago.

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales confidently deflected House Democrats' demands yesterday for details in the firings of U.S. attorneys, appearing ever more likely to survive accusations that the dismissals were politically motivated.

Republican lawmakers rushed to Gonzales' defense as he denied anew that the firings last year were improper.

The mostly muted five-hour House Judiciary Committee hearing contrasted sharply with Gonzales' sometimes testy appearance three weeks ago, when Senate Republicans questioned his competence to run the Justice Department. One senator at that session joined a small GOP chorus saying he should step down.

"I will work as hard as I can, working with this committee and working with DOJ employees, to reassure the American people that this department is focused on doing its job," Gonzales said yesterday.

That didn't satisfy exasperated Democrats, who accused Gonzales of being evasive.

"Your reputation is on the line, Mr. Attorney General. What do you have to say for yourself?" asked Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), adding that the "buck stops at the top."

"I accept responsibility," Gonzales answered.

President Bush has steadfastly stood by Gonzales, his longtime counselor and friend. Even career Justice Department staffers angered by his response to the firings concede that Gonzales appears to have beaten back calls to leave.

Republicans sought to portray the controversy as losing steam, and pushed their Democratic counterparts to wrap up the congressional probe that has dogged the Justice Department since the beginning of the year.

"The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee's top Republican. "If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat, and turn to more pressing issues."

Still, Gonzales acknowledged low morale at the department. Career prosecutors have said it is stunting hiring. He maintained, however, that the department's independence was intact.

"Contrary to being gun-shy, this process is somewhat liberating in terms of going forward," he said.

Gonzales repeatedly said he was unaware of many of the factors leading up to the dismissals because he relied on his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to carry them out. He also said he could not clarify parts of the firing process that remain murky in his own mind while investigations of the dismissals continue.

He said he had "no basis to believe" that Todd Graves, the former prosecutor in Kansas City, Mo., left in early 2006 because he refused to endorse department allegations about voter fraud in Missouri. Gonzales praised the work of Debra Yang, formerly the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, who resigned in October to take a higher-paying job at a private firm.

Neither Graves nor Yang is among the eight prosecutors whose dismissals are being investigated, but questions about their resignations have surfaced.

Gonzales denied that Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, demanded last fall's ouster of then-New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias. He acknowledged that Rove had complained about stagnant voter-fraud cases in three districts, including New Mexico, and noted that those concerns were echoed by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R., N.M.).

Those complaints spurred suspicions that Iglesias was fired because he refused to target Democrats.

On the other side, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R., Wis.) leaned on Gonzales yesterday to speed the department's corruption investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D., La.).

"Congressman, you know I cannot talk about that," Gonzales told Sensenbrenner.

"Well, everybody's talking about it except you," Sensenbrenner answered.