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Once again, today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales goes before Congress. Once again he'll be questioned about firing eight U.S. attorneys. Once again, Gonzales will apologize, but once again he will also insist that nothing improper occurred. He will be facing some lawmakers who think Gonzales should resign, and some may wonder why he doesn't. So this morning, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on why not.
ARI SHAPIRO: It's a tough time to be attorney general. After Alberto Gonzales' last congressional testimony, one of the only people who said good things in public about his performance was his boss, President Bush.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.
SHAPIRO: It was hard to find any prominent member of either party who agreed with that assessment. The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Gonzales has permanently damaged his credibility. Other analysts have said that's costing the Justice Department as a whole credibility before judges and juries.
According to Harvard Law professor David Barron, it's highly unusual to see such widespread loss of confidence in this high an official for this long without either the official or his boss signaling that an exit is in the works.
Professor DAVID BARRON (Law, Harvard University): The only conclusion I can reach from that, particularly given the closeness of the two individuals involved, is that the president has reasons for wanting him to stay in office.
SHAPIRO: To figure out what those reasons are, Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers recommends looking two or three moves down the chessboard. Rogers worked in the White House of earlier Republican administrations.
Mr. ED ROGERS (Co-Founder, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers): What would it really looked like if Gonzales were to go? We would have to have a Senate confirmation fight, and it would have to address everything from Guantanamo to eavesdropping to U.S. attorneys and how they'll be treated in the future, and on and on it goes.
SHAPIRO: And he says getting rid of Gonzales won't make the scandal go away.
Mr. ROGERS: From Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich to Donald Rumsfeld and how it was handled, I can't think of a time where making somebody walk the plank, having that sacrificial lamb, has really and truly brought any peace.
SHAPIRO: In fact, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has said he will finish the investigation into the U.S. attorneys scandal before any new attorney general is confirmed.
Harvard law professor Philip Heymann was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. He says as much power as congressional Democrats appear to have now, they'll have even more if the attorney general leaves.
Professor PHILIP HEYMANN (Law, Harvard University): I think the choice is between the bad and the worse. And the worse is a confirmation before a Democratic-controlled, suspicious Judiciary Committee who will demand that the person be the opposite of a Bush loyalist.
SHAPIRO: Result: Gonzales stays. Lanny Davis, who was special counsel to President Clinton, says that's the president's prerogative.
Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Former Special Counsel to President Clinton): It's up to the president to decide whether he wants an attorney general who is effective with Congress. It's not up to Congress to decide.
SHAPIRO: Davis says he used the same argument when Republicans called on Attorney General Janet Reno to resign in the '90s.
Mr. DAVIS: The problem with us Democrats, now that we're in the majority, is we're forgetting that the same arguments we used against Republican abuses in the '90s, we're forgetting about those arguments now that the shoe is on the other foot.
SHAPIRO: Then again, Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers says Democrats might have reasons for wanting Gonzales to stay, too, despite their rhetoric to the contrary.
Mr. ROGERS: He's a talking point, and he's part of the litany of complaints and illustrations they have against the malfeasance that they see within the Bush administration. So he's a good bad guy for them right now.
SHAPIRO: That means Gonzales has to accept that his fate may be to remain Congress' punching bag for the time being. There's an elegant symmetry to the shape of this scandal, says law Professor Barron.
Prof. BARRON: The irony here is that this scandal began because of the administration's fear of having to confront the specter of a confirmation. That's why they used the unusual Patriot Act procedures for replacing some of these U.S. attorneys.
SHAPIRO: Now the attorney general may be holding onto his job in part because, once again, the White House wants to avoid a brutal confirmation hearing.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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