WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales came under renewed pressure yesterday, as two more Republican senators came out against him and Democrats challenged his truthfulness about President Bush's no-warrant eavesdropping program.
The developments revived a debate over Gonzales' fitness to head the Justice Department, a day after a former deputy attorney general recounted a dramatic hospital bedside confrontation between Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft.
Bush stood by his longtime friend and adviser. "The president still has full confidence in Alberto Gonzales," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
However, Gonzales' newly regained political footing in an appearance last week before a House committee seemed in doubt again.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that in March 2004, then-White House counsel Gonzales had tried to undermine the department he now heads by trying to get Ashcroft to sign off on the warrantless wiretaps.
At the time, Comey, in Ashcroft's absence, refused to certify the legality of Bush's eavesdropping program. Gonzales tried to go over Comey's head by appealing directly to Ashcroft, who was in intensive care recovering from gallbladder surgery, Comey said. Ashcroft rebuffed Gonzales, Comey said.
Democrats said his testimony appeared to contradict Gonzales' account in February 2006, when he told two congressional panels that there had "not been any serious disagreement about the program."
"In light of Mr. Comey's testimony yesterday, do you stand by your 2006 Senate and House testimony, or do you wish to revise it?" Sens. Russell Feingold (D., Wis.), Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.), Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.) asked Gonzales in a letter yesterday.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said Gonzales' testimony "was and remains accurate."
Citing Comey's testimony, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is considering a presidential candidacy, became the fourth Republican senator to call for Gonzales' resignation.
"The American people deserve an attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of our country, whose honesty and capability are beyond question," Hagel said in a statement. Gonzales "can no longer meet this standard. He has failed this country. He has lost the moral authority to lead."
Other Republicans who have urged Gonzales' ouster are Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and John McCain of Arizona, plus House GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), former chairman of the intelligence committee, said Gonzales should consider stepping down. "When you have to spend more time up here on Capitol Hill instead of running the Justice Department, maybe you ought to think about it," Roberts said yesterday.
The House Judiciary Committee said Monica Goodling, Gonzales' former White House liaison who played a major role in the prosecutor firings, would testify next Wednesday under a grant of immunity.
And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) threatened yesterday to issue more subpoenas if the White House did not cooperate with his probe of whether Bush's White House aides, including Karl Rove, sought to improperly influence federal investigation and prosecutions.