Senate May Reclaim Veto on U.S. Attorneys

A vote is expected Tuesday on a Senate proposal to reclaim its authority to confirm U.S. attorneys. A provision in the USA Patriot Act gave the attorney general the power to appoint federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The controversy over the firing of eight federal prosecutors will continue to dominate the Capitol today. The Senate is set to vote on whether to rescind a provision of the Patriot Act's reauthorization. It allowed the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The Bush administration had been fighting to keep that power. Now with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' job in peril over the firings, the White House is no longer standing in the way.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: When Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act last year, a provision was slipped in at the Justice Department's behest that nobody at the time noticed. It let the attorney general replace U.S. attorneys without the Senate confirmation that had been required for the past two decades. In early January, some Senate Democrats learned of that that provision in the wake of the eight U.S. attorneys being fired. They drafted a bill restoring Senate confirmation. But as Senate judiciary chair Patrick Leahy noted, that bill was stalled for months.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): The bill we have before us was initially fought by the Department of Justice when it was in committee. It appears that even after these scandals there are people down there who want to continue the loophole that's been so badly misused.

WELNA: But as the scandal over the federal prosecutor's firing widened this month, Attorney General Gonzales told Leahy the Bush administration no longer opposed doing away with the Patriot Act provision. Even such staunch supporters of President Bush as Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions agree it's time that law be changed.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I think the Patriot Act language that we passed was not carefully thought through and did leave a loophole that could allow the president to avoid confirmation process. And I think that's not healthy.

WELNA: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein is the lead sponsor of the bill restoring Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys. Arguing yesterday on the Senate floor for its passage, which now seems all but certain, Feinstein pointed out that U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was fired soon after landing former California Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in jail for taking bribes.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): The timing looks really suspicious, and it raises serious questions, questions that need to be answered. Because if any U.S. attorney were removed because of a public corruption investigation or prosecution, this well could comprise obstruction of justice.

WELNA: Senate Democrats say the way to get the facts is by compelling Justice Department and White House officials to provide sworn testimony. The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, is on the Judiciary Committee. That panel decides this Thursday whether to authorize Chairman Leahy to issue subpoenas.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We need to learn whether Attorney General Gonzales and his deputies told Congress the truth when they testified just a few weeks ago. We need to have Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, and other top administration officials testify under oath about their role in these firings. I hope they'll come voluntarily. If they don't, the Senate Judiciary Committee should subpoena each and every one of them.

WELNA: Meanwhile, demands for the ouster of Attorney General Gonzales continue. Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor said yesterday Gonzales should just step down.

Senator MARK PRYOR (Democrat, Arkansas): He is a political appointee but not to play politics with that office.

WELNA: White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked yesterday if Gonzales was staying on, to which he replied we hope so.

David Welna, NPR News.

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