Monday, April 02, 2007

White House rejects Senate compromise on firings

White House rejects Senate compromise on firings
By Stuart Grudgings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House dismissed on Sunday a possible U.S. Senate compromise to allow testimony by officials over the firing of federal prosecutors, which has embroiled President George W. Bush's administration in controversy and led to calls for his attorney general to quit.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said an agreement was possible under which White House aides such as Bush's chief political strategist Karl Rove could testify without being under oath.

Critics charge that the dismissals of the eight U.S. attorneys were politically motivated, with White House involvement.

"I think that Chuck Schumer and I may have come to agreement here ... on a very important issue -- and that is the way to get the White House officials coming up (to testify)," Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Schumer and Specter said an oath might not be needed because perjury laws already required truthful testimony, but that a transcript of any testimony was essential.

Bush has vowed to oppose any attempt to compel aides to give sworn testimony, offering instead that they talk with lawmakers behind closed doors without a transcript.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett rejected the compromise, saying the senators were trying to "cobble together a proposal through sound bites on a Sunday show. What we have in writing from them is far different than that type of proposal."

Some Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys, which would be a major blow for Bush as he struggles with public discontent over the war in Iraq.

Critics accuse the Bush administration of dismissing the officials to make room for its allies or because it felt some were too tough on Republicans and too easy on Democrats.

The administration contends the dismissals were justified, mainly on performance grounds or policy differences.

But newly disclosed documents also show loyalty was a factor, and Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told Congress on Thursday that the attorney general had been involved in the firings. Gonzales, who said on Friday he did not recall being involved in talks on dismissing individual federal prosecutors, faces what many see as a make-or-break appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.

"There are so many misstatements out there and so many contradictions that whatever happens in his testimony, I don't think he can continue as attorney-general," said Schumer.

Specter said Gonzales needed to explain the apparent contradiction between his version of his involvement in the firings and that of Sampson.

"If he has reason to apologize to the American people then he should," Specter said.

Bartlett accused Democrats of dragging out the controversy for political reasons, calling it "inexplicable" that they were refusing to bring forward the date of Gonzales' testimony from mid-April.

"Nothing has emerged in this testimony or in the documents that have been released that any sort of political or wrongdoing has taken place ... I think it makes you ask the question what the Democrats are really up to," he said on the same CBS show.

Despite Bush's unwavering support for Gonzales, there are signs that conservative opinion is turning against the attorney general. The influential conservative magazine The National Review last week added its voice to calls for his resignation.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that about one-third of nearly four dozen attorney jobs that have changed hands during Bush's second term had been filled by trusted administration insiders. It said the appointments, while not illegal, appeared to alter a long-standing culture of autonomy for the nation's chief prosecutors.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert)