Senate Hearing Highlights Specter-Gonzales Relationship

The relationship between Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has become increasingly antagonistic. Gonzales testifies Tuesday before the Senate committee.

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow. If the past is any indication, the hearing will be tense.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the increasingly antagonistic relationship between two powerful Republicans: Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter and Attorney General Gonzales.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Bruce Fein worked for Republicans in Congress and the Justice Department. He says calling the relationship between Senator Arlen Specter and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tense is a huge understatement.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Attorney, Bruce Fein and Associates, The Lichfield Group): It's hard for me to imagine any situations - and I've been around, it's probably gone through at least a dozen or more attorneys general - where there's been such a feisty, unfruitful relationship between the Department of Justice and White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SHAPIRO: Specter gets frustrated when the Justice Department won't answer questions. The Justice Department gets angry when a Republican Senator holds their feet to the fire. It has not always been this way.

Just last year, Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter was one of Gonzales' strongest supporters. He oversaw the attorney general's confirmation hearing.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): If the winds of Abu Ghraib and the winds of Guantanamo hadn't blown across this hearing, I think we would have had perhaps a unanimous vote in favor of Judge Gonzales. And in this highly charged political atmosphere in a wedge issue, one has to wonder whether he isn't being a torture victim himself.

SHAPIRO: Contrast that with February of this year. Gonzales came before Specter's Committee again, this time to defend the president's domestic spying program and his interpretation of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (United States Attorney General): This is not a situation where FISA has been overridden or FISA has been amended. That's never been our position.

Sen. SPECTER: Well, that just defies logic, in plain English.

SHAPIRO: Specter's not the type to conduct a screaming match, but his tone with Gonzales is unmistakably blunt. The man at Specter's left hand at these hearings is Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont. They've known each other for more than 30 years.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I know when he's frustrated. He also knows when I'm frustrated.

SHAPIRO: He says, right now they're frustrated.

Sen. LEAHY: The attorney general told us under oath at his confirmation hearing that, of course, he'd be responsive to us, he'd respond to letters and inquiries from both Senator Specter and myself, and he hasn't done that.

SHAPIRO: That's the biggest complaint, that Gonzales doesn't answer questions or share enough information with the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. DICK THORNBURG (Former Attorney General of the United States): This is the longest running show in town.

SHAPIRO: Dick Thornburg was a Republican attorney general when Democrats controlled Congress.

Mr. THORNBURG: I must say that tension is kind of built into the relationship and the work that the Department of Justice does.

SHAPIRO: He says, in any administration, the Department of Justice is probably more secretive than it needs to be and the Judiciary Committee is probably more aggressive than it needs to be. If the relationship is worse now, it may have to do with the specific subjects that are being debated - domestic spying, torture policy, presidential authority, major Constitutional issues that have taken on new urgency since September 11th.

Former Attorney General Thornburg:

Mr. THORNBURG: A lot of the law in this area is not settled so that, obviously, the Department of Justice is going to be an advocate for the administration's views and there's going to be some occasions where there's push-back from members of the Judiciary Committee, including the chairman, and that's what we're seeing today.

SHAPIRO: It's not just that the law is ambiguous. NYU law professor David Golove says the administration's position on these issues often relegates Congress to a secondary role.

Professor DAVID GOLOVE (Professor of Law, New York University): The Bush administration's positions on executive power issues are simply more aggressive, some would say more extreme, than previous administrations.

SHAPIRO: Golove says that puts Specter in the position of challenging more than just specific policies. From Specter's point of view, he's fighting to keep his branch of government relevant.

Prof. GOLOVE: The executive claims are essentially that Congress has little or no role to play; it's entirely something controlled by the executive. And that puts the Congress and the Senate, and in particular the Judiciary Committee, in a very difficult position.

SHAPIRO: And then there are the personalities. Mark Corallo worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill, and he was Attorney General John Ashcroft's spokesman.

Mr. MARK CORALLO (Founder, Corallo Media Strategies; Former Director of Public Affairs, Department of Justice): Senator Specter has a reputation for being very direct, very blunt, and if he doesn't get exactly what he wants he can really kind of chew you out. And he's not as tactful as others. And, you know, I think that's just his style.

SHAPIRO: Corallo says Specter's more of a maverick than almost anyone in his party. Before Republican leaders would give him the Judiciary Committee chairmanship, he had to placate conservatives who feared he might block some of the president's judicial nominees.

Mr. CORALLO: He certainly is a lot more outspoken when he has disagreements. He's not the kind of guy who feels that he should have to do it in the back rooms and in the cloakrooms and try to wheedle the deal.

SHAPIRO: When Gonzales served as White House counsel, Brad Berenson worked with him. And Berenson says Gonzales' personality makes him a good counterpart to Specter.

Mr. BRAD BERENSON (Former Associate White House Counsel): While you might have the potential for a toxic relationship to develop between a chairman like Senator Specter and the Department of Justice in this administration, Judge Gonzales is precisely the kind of anecdote you need to prevent that toxicity from developing.

SHAPIRO: He says Gonzales is unflappably calm and respectful no matter how tense things become.

Specter is not shy about describing what he sees as the reasons for the strained relationship.

Sen. SPECTER: I have been concerned about some of the positions which the attorney general has taken and the lack of a real explanation as to the legal underpinning.

SHAPIRO: But he denies that these tensions are anything out of the ordinary.

Sen. SPECTER: There have been a lot of difficult issues which the executive branch has had to face on terrorism and the oversight issue is bound to produce some tension, and we've had a very activist Judiciary Committee looking into these issues. So I think it's par for the course.

SHAPIRO: And at a briefing for reporters last week, Gonzales spoke about his relationship with Specter. Although the conversation was on the record, Gonzales would not allow his voice to be broadcast.

He said, there will always be, from time to time, certain differences of opinion about information that can be shared legitimately with the Congress by the executive branch. But I've got the kind of relationship, or I certainly hope I have the kind of relationship with the chairman, that we can work out those differences and reach an accommodation so that Congress does have the information it needs, end quote.

Through even the most tense political moments, both men maintain an outward appearance of civility. But Bruce Fein, who's testified at several Judiciary Committee hearings, says the veneer is getting thin.

Mr. FEIN: If you're there in the hearing room itself there is a palpable tension that you can feel that is unmistakable.

SHAPIRO: Specter and Gonzales meet again tomorrow, 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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