U.S. attorney bill stalls amid GOP objections, Dem threats

The battle over seven dismissed U.S. attorneys took a sharp partisan turn yesterday, with Senate Republicans vowing to hold up a bill revoking the Justice Department’s power to indefinitely appoint prosecutors until Democrats give ground on amendments.

Democratic leaders attempted to pass the U.S. attorneys bill unanimously, citing GOP support for reversing a provision in last year’s Patriot Act that has allowed Justice to remove the seven attorneys — several in the midst of public corruption cases — without sending the Senate new nominees.

But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) objected, asserting his party’s right to votes on amendments. The U.S. attorneys bill marks the Senate’s third standoff this year between Democrats eager to move their agenda and Republicans ready to test the power of the razor-thin majority.

Democrats “are trying to create a scandal where none exists,” Kyl said in an interview yesterday. “There’s a lot of politics to this. … Let’s sit down and work out a [deal] that allows three or four amendments.”

Democrats have come to the defense of two dismissed prosecutors in particular, Carol Lam of San Diego and Bud Cummins of Arkansas, noting that Lam was leading the probe of ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Cummins was removed to make room for a former aide to White House senior adviser Karl Rove. Other U.S. attorneys, including those in Nevada and Arizona, had acted on corruption charges against Republican lawmakers before their resignations were requested.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty briefed Judiciary Committee senators late Wednesday on alleged performance problems with the dismissed prosecutors, yet Democrats left dismayed that Justice did not provide copies of evaluation forms for the seven attorneys.

“We’re not satisfied with the answers we’ve gotten,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday. “There are too many holes in too many places.”

Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who paid public tribute to Lam yesterday upon the attorney’s formal departure, are working on a compromise with Justice so that senators can view redacted versions of the evaluations. If that effort fails, Schumer said yesterday, Democrats will subpoena the forms.

Justice continues to oppose the bill, and a senior department official said yesterday that McNulty’s hours-long briefing included an in-depth description of the evaluations.

“This sounds to me a little more like Democrats trying to play politics and use the S-word than it does trying to obtain substantive information,” the official said.

Kyl’s chief concern is the bill’s awarding of U.S. attorney appointment power to the courts if a permanent nominee is not named within 120 days, which the Arizonan believes may overstep the separation of powers. To push the administration to act quickly on openings, Kyl suggested the Senate should impose a deadline on itself.

“If it’s important to make sure the president’s got to send a nominee forward, one might also agree we should set a limit for the Senate to act on that nominee,” Kyl said.

Before the contentious round of resignation requests began, however, 13 U.S. attorney slots were vacant with only two nominations sent to the Senate, according to Feinstein’s comments yesterday.

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Judiciary’s senior Republican and a cosponsor of the bill at issue, said keeping U.S. attorney appointment powers in the executive branch, as Kyl has offered, would not resolve the problem: “If it’s the president, that’s the same as the attorney general.”

Republicans are not threatening a filibuster of the bill and recognize they could likely lose on amendments they offer, one GOP aide noted. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) employed a similar tactic in delaying movement of a non-binding resolution criticizing the president’s Iraq policy, although the GOP’s preferred amendment in that case had a chance to win more votes than the Democrats’ measure.

“We will continue to work to move forward on the bill after recess, including discussing possible amendments with Republicans,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

Another Democratic leadership aide also invoked the Iraq stalemate, charging Republicans with blocking oversight of the White House.

“Senate Republicans’ top priority is protecting the president and his political cronies,” the aide said. “Republicans have blocked a debate on the war in Iraq and now they are defending a law that allows good public servants to be fired and replaced with Karl Rove’s partisans.”

In the House, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and senior Judiciary Democrats Howard Berman (Calif.) and Linda Sanchez (Calif.) sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales seeking more information on Lam’s case and a date for House members to receive their own Justice briefing.

“For the Bush administration, politics comes before justice,” Emanuel said.

McConnell pointed a finger at Democrats for criticizing Justice’s actions on the prosecutors after holding up three of the department’s nominees last year, two of whom were eventually confirmed.

“Given our Democratic colleagues’ newfound affinity for the confirmation process, we hope that they will finally give [the remaining nominee] an up-or-down vote, 20 months after he was first nominated,” McConnell said in a statement.