The White House was “troubled,” according to one source, about the reported actions — or inactions — of the Justice Department last week as Republicans in Congress made a last ditch attempt to rescue Terri Schiavo.
“You actually had Arlen Specter and his Judiciary Committee out there trying to save this woman’s life, and then you have Alberto Gonzales and his crew over at Justice basically putting up roadblocks,” says a White House staffer. “This was not a good way for Gonzales to start his tenure there.”
Gonzales has been on the job at Justice for a little over two months now, and the congressional attempts to restore the feeding tube to Schiavo was the new AG’s first high-profile foray into the politics that swirl around the Justice Department.
By most accounts, Gonzales and his team fared poorly, at least from Republican viewpoints. “Instead of trying to work with us, all we got were no’s and roadblocks, with little guidance on what we could do and could not do,” says a House leadership staffer who spoke often with the Justice Department’s Legislative Affairs office. “They weren’t being helpful, and they sure weren’t doing the White House any favors.”
Ultimately, both the House and the Senate passed — and President Bush signed — legislation designed to give Schiavo’s parents their best shot at having a federal court overrule the rulings of Florida state courts. Those federal filings ultimately failed.
Before the legislation, the Senate Judiciary Committee — with Specter’s approval — and House Republicans attempted to subpoena Terri Schiavo, a political maneuver that won plaudits from a number of conservative groups around the country, but which received a thumbs-down the Department of Justice. “The Justice Department pushed us hard to withdraw the subpoena idea,” says the House staffer. “We told them that the White House knew about this, and that they tacitly approved. It didn’t seem to matter to DOJ. Gonzales and his folks just made things harder for us.”
“If the White House was hoping that Gonzales might be able to burnish his image for conservatives leading up to a Supreme Court nomination, the Schiavo case tarnished it pretty badly,” says a staffer for a Senator who was pushing hard for the subpoena solution. “I’ll say this, every conservative up here was wishing [former Attorney General John] Ashcroft was still there.”
To be fair to Gonzalez, Ashcroft’s presence at Justice probably would not have made much difference. Ashcroft was excoriated by conservatives on his leaving office for what they said were his failures to press for tough stands against pornography, human trafficking and abortion rights, while not pressing hard enough for faith-based programs.
Another Senate staffer says her impression of the Justice Department’s role in the Schiavo case is more benign. “They were giving us straight legal analysis from the federal perspective, nothing more, which is probably what has a lot of people up in arms, and it was all behind the scenes. These folks wanted Gonzales out front, making it appear this was an issue he cared about. That didn’t happen,” says the staffer. “But I don’t think anyone can dispute that the legal advice they gave us wasn’t sound. They just didn’t help us get to where we wanted to be.”
And for failing to do that, many Republicans in the House and the Senate say that Gonzales has failed the first litmus test on the conservative scorecard.
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