NINA TOTENBERG: This is Nina Totenberg.
Within an hour of the Gonzales announcement, names began surfacing for a possible replacement. The president announced that Solicitor General Paul Clement would take over as acting attorney general on a temporary basis. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he would hope that the president would not make any permanent choice without consulting Senate. Leahy underlined the point noting that there will be no confirmation hearing until he decides the have one.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): The hearing would be scheduled at a time I thought it was appropriate.
TOTENBERG: While Solicitor General Clement will be acting attorney general once Gonzales leaves and may be a contender himself, the name that was most often heard today as the likely successor was that of Michael Chertoff, a former federal judge, former federal prosecutor, assistant attorney general, and now, secretary of Homeland Security. But while Leahy would not comment on Chertoff, it was pretty clear today the Chertoff name was not exactly music to Democratic ears.
Here, for example, is New York Senator Charles Schumer.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I think that many of us - and I talked to Senator Leahy about this this morning a little bit, many of us have some doubts about Michael Chertoff. So I wouldn't say yes, I wouldn't say no. It's an open book. It's possible, but it's hardly a slam-dunk.
TOTENBERG: Just how problematic Chertoff could be was evidenced by the reaction of one Democrat who said, well, if the White House wants three weeks of hearings about how he handled Hurricane Katrina, be my guest. Senator Leahy said he'll have other suggestions.
Sen. LEAHY: Senator Specter and I are working together, could easily, if the White House wanted, could easily give them a list of people who would have no problem being confirmed. If they would like that advice, I think with such a short time left in the administration, they'd be well advised to seek that.
TOTENBERG: Leahy also made clear today that he'll pursue the outstanding investigations into the U.S. attorney firing scandal and other matters regardless of who's name to head the Justice Department. And there's ample precedent for getting commitments on thorny issues from a nominee at his confirmation hearing. As former Reagan administration Solicitor General Charles Fried observes, Democrats have a fair amount of leverage.
Mr. CHARLES FRIED (Former Solicitor General, Reagan Administration): They would be, I guess, foolish not to use the leverage they have. On the other hand, the nominee would be much more foolish to accept that. And so we've got the making of an impasse there.
TOTENBERG: At the same time, Fried knows anyone who's offered the job of attorney general should have some leverage of his or her own to negotiate a higher level of independence than the Bush administration has accorded its two previous attorneys general.
Mr. FRIED: The nominee has got to make clear that the president is not going to try to make him simply a mailbox for decisions in the White House. That doesn't mean the president shouldn't have somebody whose judgment he trusts and whose ideas go along with him. But the nominee has to insist that you trust me and it's my department and I get to run it. And I get to run it with my people. And when you don't like the way I'm running it, tell me and I'll go away.
TOTENBERG: Faced with such hard choices, the president, according to sources, may leave Solicitor General Clement in the job of acting attorney general for a while, hoping that Clement can earn the Senate's trust while not betraying the president's. The 41-year-old Clement has impeccable conservative credentials, having served as law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and having worked for Senator John Ashcroft before coming to the Justice Department with Ashcroft when he became attorney general.
At the same time, Clement has earned widespread respect for ably defending some federal laws in the Supreme Court that conservatives find anathema, laws like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance statute. But for now, Washington is witnessing a particularly awkward sword dance between a lame duck president and a Democratic Senate with just a one-vote majority.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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And you can hear Alberto Gonzales' defense of some of his controversial positions over the years at our Web site, npr.org.
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