The frustrations of Senate Democrats have begun to manifest themselves in actions rather than words, as four Senate Democrats have requested a perjury probe of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales's testimony regarding a hospital room confrontation with his predecessor, John Ashcroft, was contradicted by FBI Director Robert Mueller.
But the perjury issue is trickier than a simple senatorial recommendation to launch an investigation. It is the solicitor general, not Congress, who would have the authority to appoint a special counsel to investigate. And the solicitor general is a member of the Bush administration.
Historically, prying the truth from Gonzales has been an unfruitful venture. Gonzales, like most in the Bush Administration, has never been one to sit willingly for a congressional disquisition.
Tuesday's hearing on "Oversight of the Department of Justice" played similarly, peppered throughout with "do not recalls," factual discrepancies, and apparent contradictions. So unsatisfied were committee Democrats with Gonzales's performance that Russ Feingold (D-WI) instructed Gonzales to read and re-read his prior testimonies to iron out all discrepancies before appearing before the committee again. The committee gave Gonzales eight days to correct, clarify, or otherwise amend his testimony.
"I've never seen this type of avoidance before," said Arlen Specter (R-PA), the lone Republican to remain for the duration of the hearing. "I think we have to pursue this."
Pursue it, the Democrats have. And now the success of the perjury probe against Gonzales might hang on Specter, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a man whose support would give the air of bipartisan legitimacy to a perjury probe that might be written off as "political" otherwise.
Speaking with a Judiciary Committee spokesperson after Gonzales's Tuesday hearing, it was clear that Senate Democrats wanted to send a stronger message to Gonzales than they could by following normal procedures. Typically, after a hearing, legislators write follow-up questions and testifiers have a chance to clarify their answers. That is the procedure, at least, when senators feel there is a basis of truth in the hearings.
But Senate Democrats are saying the days when they could "trust, but verify" Gonzales's words have long passed. And they are tired of waiting. One could sense that things were different during Tuesday's hearing on Oversight at the Justice Department.
"You have come here seeking our trust," said Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), "but you have already lost mine." Said Feingold, "Your testimony has been misleading, at best." Even ranking member Specter joined the fray, telling Gonzales that morale at the Department of Justice fell to an all-time low under his watch, and proclaiming it "difficult" to take seriously Gonzales's reassurances that he is addressing the problem.
Such words have been par for the course since Gonzales took over as attorney general in 2005. It is the actions behind the words that have changed dramatically. This puts the Bush White House in a tough position, whereby it can take one of two choices. Bush can require Gonzales to testify candidly, on the record, under oath. Or the president can instruct Solicitor General Clement to reject a follow-up on the perjury probe, wave the banner of executive privilege, and right the battle through the media. Advantage, Democrats.
But the law-and-order issue can surely be overplayed. If Democrats come to be seen as vengeful, if their actions are perceived as "political," it is their credibility, not Gonzales's, that would come into question. And if all the public proclamations about subpoenas and perjury bears no tangible fruit, Democrats would lose the one thing they have going for them -- the political high ground to demand accountability from the Bush Administration. In that case, advantage, Republicans.
Specter, for his part, has given mixed signals. In some cases, he has begun to eat away at the attacks on Gonzales, today accusing his peers of "politicizing" the perjury probe. "There's a little bit of Don Quixote, everybody's running off in different directions," Specter is quoted in the Post. Yet Specter also sharply criticized the administration's view of executive power while aboard Air Force One yesterday.
This is the same Arlen Specter that said "I do not find your testimony credible" to Gonzales with cameras running, the same Specter that ominously referred to the need to "pursue" Gonzales's alleged inconsistencies. This is the same Arlen Specter who might be the most important man in the process, in the months ahead.
If Specter refuses to push for the perjury probe -- as his early remarks on the Quixotic nature of the probe indicate -- we could end up right back where we started: with an unaccountable attorney general and a Congress powerless to act.
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