Senate Votes to Resume Attorney Confirmation

By a vote of 94-2, senators agree to rescind a provision that had been quietly slipped into a reauthorization of the Patriot Act last year. No longer will the attorney general have powers to appoint interim federal prosecutors indefinitely and without Senate confirmation.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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The dispute over eight fired U.S. attorneys prompted decisive action by the Senate today by a vote of 94-2. Senators agreed to rescind a provision slipped into reauthorization of the Patriot Act last year. The attorney general will no longer have the power to appoint interim federal prosecutors indefinitely and without Senate confirmation.

NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: It was only early this year after the eight U.S. attorneys had been fired that senators realized they'd unwittingly given new powers to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. When Congress approved the Patriot Act reauthorization last year, no one noticed that language had been added that effectively did away with Senate confirmation for interim federal prosecutors. And recently released internal Justice Department e-mails show officials there were more than eager to exercise those new powers. New York Democrat Charles Schumer is leading the Senate probe into the prosecutors' firing. He denounced the Patriot Act provision on the Senate floor.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Weeks ago, we suspected that the provision that we are correcting today was no more than a mechanism to allow end-runs around the Senate and the people. Now the e-mails have proved our worse fear. This provision was apparently added to the Patriot Act not for efficiency or national security but to make it easier to install political loyalists.

WELNA: For two months, the White House opposed stripping the new powers for the attorney general out of the Patriot Act. But with Republicans as well as Democrats decrying the fired prosecutors case, a secret hold was recently lifted on the bill proposed by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): The bill before the Senate would return the law to what it was before the change that was made in March of '06. It would still give the attorney general the authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys. But it would limit that authority to 120 days.

WELNA: After that, a district judge could name a U.S. attorney if none had been confirmed by the Senate, the same practice that had been in place for the last decades. Arizona Republican Jon Kyl argued it makes no sense to go back to the old law.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): The thing that everybody's objecting here are Alberto Gonzales is going to appoint an interim and the Senate will never have a chance to act on that nominee. My amendment eliminates his ability to do that.

WELNA: But Kyl's amendment was defeated and only two Republicans voted against the bill that restores Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys, a bill yet to be voted on by the House. For Democrats, the vote was a clear victory. But majority leader Harry Reid said much more remains to be done if public faith in the federal justice system is to be restored. He belittled the Bush administration's release last night of more documents related to the U.S. attorneys' dismissals.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Sending a 3,000-page dump isn't a way to get out of doing the right the thing for the American people, and that is to have these people who are intricately involved with this scandal come and testify under oath.

WELNA: Not if the White House has its way. White House Counsel Fred Fielding told the Senate and House Judiciary committees today that presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers may be interviewed in private but not under oath and without a written transcript of what they say. House Judiciary chair John Conyers said he was disappointed to say the least with that arrangement. And the Senate's Schumer said his chamber's Judiciary Committee still plans to meet Thursday to vote on authorizing subpoenas for both Rove and Miers.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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