The Democratic campaign to oust Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from office by pressuring both him and President Bush suffered something of a setback this evening when Republicans blocked a procedural motion requiring 60 votes to bring a "no-confidence" resolution on his tenure to a formal vote. But there was no reason for Gonzales to rejoice, as a bipartisan majority of the Senate voted 53-38 to express displeasure with the job he's doing.
Seven Republicans joined 46 Democrats to proceed to a formal vote on the nonbinding resolution, expressing that "it is the sense of the Senate that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales no longer holds the confidence of the Senate and of the American people."
"Have I lost confidence in Attorney General Gonzales?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Absolutely yes. Mr. Gonzales has made representations that are false."
Gonzales has been under fire for not being forthcoming about his role in the controversy surrounding eight U.S. attorneys whom Democrats say were fired for not being partisan enough. Former Justice Department underlings have contradicted Gonzales' testimony about his role, whether he spoke to witnesses in the investigation and about whether the administration had any internal conflicts about its warrantless wiretap surveillance program. Democrats have lodged myriad other accusations that Gonzales' Justice Department has been more allegiant to President Bush than to the rule of law.
"Alberto Gonzales is profoundly unworthy of holding one of the most important offices in the country," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Specter joined fellow Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu Jr. of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in their vote for the resolution. Every Democrat voting supported it as well. A handful of senators -- including presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who were both campaigning in California -- did not vote.
Despite a spirited debate, no Senate Republican offered a defense of Gonzales, though several attacked the resolution as meaningless and overly political.
"To paraphrase Shakespeare, whether this joint resolution amounts to sound and fury, it signifies nothing," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "It is nothing more than a bit of political theater, which should be rejected out of hand."
Republicans assailed the resolution's chief sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who in addition to serving as the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tasked specifically with defeating potentially vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2008, such as Sununu, Collins and Coleman.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointed out that when then-Rep. Schumer ran for Senate in 1998 he criticized incumbent Republican Sen. Al D'Amato for a conflict of interest, since D'Amato served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee while simultaneously investigating the Clinton administration.
McConnell said Schumer should recuse himself from investigating the Justice Department. "I hope it is not the case that our friend from New York wrote this resolution and pushed the Senate to spend its valuable time on this particular resolution for partisan political purposes," McConnell said.
Speaking to reporters in Mobile, Ala., Monday afternoon, Gonzales said the vote was a "distraction" but that he needed to "remain disciplined and focused on what I think is important for the American people," including law enforcement and anti-terrorism. "I'm going to be looking at the next 18 months and sprinting to the finish line."
Earlier in the day in Bulgaria, Bush said that the Senate "can try to have their votes of no confidence, but it's not going to make the determination who serves in my government."
"This process has been drug (sic) out a long time, which says to me it's political," Bush said. "There's no wrongdoing. [They] haven't said, here's, 'You've done something wrong, Attorney General Gonzales.' And therefore, I ascribe this lengthy series of news stories and hearings as political. And I'll make the determination if I think he's effective, or not, not those who are using an opportunity to make a political statement on a meaningless resolution."
The Senate Historian's Office cannot recall the Senate ever before voting on a "no-confidence" resolution.
The situation most similar to today's events occurred in 1886, when the Senate adopted a "condemnation" resolution against President Grover Cleveland's attorney general, A.H. Garland, because he had refused to provide the Senate with documents pertaining to the removal of a federal prosecutor in Alabama.
"Old Hickory" himself, President Andrew Jackson, was censured in 1834 for refusing to turn over documents related to his veto of legislation pertaining to the Bank of the United States.
His fellow Democrats, after taking control of the Senate, later expunged that censure from the record.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, thought to be the subject of an FBI corruption probe voted "present." Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Independent Democrat of Connecticut, voted with most Republicans against the resolution, despite some last-minute lobbying on the Senate floor by Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Avery Miller and Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report.