Capital Briefs: Mar. 19-24

Gonzales Probably Gone: With no apparent Republican support on Capitol Hill late last week, Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales is widely expected to resign to stem the controversy surrounding the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Although U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President and the administration was perfectly within its rights to fire them for whatever reason, Gonzales so severely botched his response to the Democrats’ outcry over the dismissals, led by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y), that veteran Washington politicos think it unlikely he can recover. His deputy, Kyle Sampson, has already resigned and at press time the Senate Judiciary Committee had just voted to subpoena five Justice Department officials and six of the U.S. attorneys they fired. The committee soon will vote to authorize subpoenas for senior White House Advisor Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelly as a part of their “oversight” hearings on the matter. Instead of plainly relying on the administration’s right to fire U.S. attorneys, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty originally told the media that they were fired based on performance reviews. But it then turned out the performance reviews were strong, rating the fired attorneys well. Then, Gonzales held a press conference and told reporters that “mistakes were made” and that he took responsibility for the firings. President Bush said soon after that “what the Justice Department did was appropriate…. What was mishandled was the explanation.” But even loyal Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) didn’t seem hopeful about the eventual outcome of the mess, saying last Tuesday that “appearances are troubling. The Executive branch owes it to Congress to be forthcoming when Congress asks for information, and this has not been handled well.” The former judge morbidly joked, “But in Texas, we believe in having a fair trial and then the hanging.”

Will Hagel Go? After calling a press conference to reveal his plans, the strange announcement by Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel that he hasn’t yet decided on a bid for President next year left most people bewildered, but Republicans in his home state believe it was a strong sign that Hagel will eventually say he won’t seek re-election in ’08 and is leaving politics altogether. Days after Hagel’s “non-announcement,” Republican State Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning announced he was forming an exploratory committee for a Senate race in the event there is an open seat next year. Republican National Committeeman and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub is also reportedly contemplating a similar move. Both Bruning and Daub are considered more reliably conservative than Hagel.

Hillary’s Hypocrisy:  Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) was quick to exploit the flap over Gonzales for her own political gain and do a little rewriting of history while she was at it. She quickly called for Gonzales’ resignation and sent an e-mail action alert to her campaign supporters that said, “Why should Gonzales resign? Because he is at the center of a widening scandal over the firing of several U.S. attorneys—firings we now know to be political.” Getting into full campaign mode, she declared, “These attacks on the impartiality of the federal government’s prosecutors are a genuine threat to the foundations of our justice system. It’s so bad that one U.S. attorney in Arkansas was fired to make room for a former aide to Karl Rove.” The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial the next day titled “The Hubbell Standard” that “Hillary knows all about sacking U.S. attorneys. As it happens, Mrs. Clinton is just the senator to walk point on this issue of dismissing U.S. attorneys because she has direct personal experience. In any congressional probe of the matter, we’d suggest she call herself as the first witness—and bring along Webster Hubbell as her chief counsel.” Hubbell, of course, was her former partner at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock who went to jail for mail fraud and tax evasion. He served as associate attorney general until Atty. Gen. Janet Reno fired all 93 U.S. attorneys in March 1993. At the time, President Clinton maintained that “all those people are routinely replaced.” In fact, no previous administration had fired all the attorneys at once. When the attorneys were fired, Whitewater allegations were boiling. As the Journal noted, “By dismissing all 93 U.S. attorneys at once, the Clintons conveniently cleared the decks to appoint ‘Friend of Bill’ Paula Casey as the U.S. attorney for Little Rock.” She never brought any major Whitewater indictments.

Spreading the Pain:  An uncommon alliance has been formed between the automakers and their associated labor unions to try to block passage of increased fuel efficiency requirements. Instead of just opposing a higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard outright, the groups will propose an economy-wide cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The automakers and their unions believe this strategy will force the business community to support their cause as businesses across the board would feel the pain through lower profits and productivity. It appears the “addicted to oil” Bush Administration is “going green” on this issue, so now House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D.-Mich.) looks like the best hope of fending off this environmentalist assault.

Former industry ally Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) has flipped on CAFE standards. House Democrats want to increase the standard to 35 miles per gallon, but Stevens, who in 2002 supported killing any CAFE increases, now is asking for a new 40-miles-per-gallon standard for all cars by 2018.

No Quick Fix: Democrats are desperately, but so far unsuccessfully, trying to craft a solution to the Alternative Minimum Tax problem because the AMT is hitting millions and millions more of their target voters each year. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) has said he might try to “redirect” the tax burden from the middle class to the wealthy, by “rearranging” the Bush tax cuts. Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.), the committee’s ranking GOP member, immediately objected. “If House Democrats want to turn this into a class-warfare vehicle, they are going to face fierce resistance from Republicans” he said. “We’re not going to allow our pro-growth tax policies that are expanding the economy to be held hostage to an AMT fix.”

Goodbye Marty! Rep. Marty Meehan (D.-Mass.) of campaign finance infamy will be leaving Congress in July to become the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, triggering a special election in the Bay State. Conservatives hope his impending departure means he will abandon some of the ideas he is now pushing in Congress. One of his bills would overhaul the campaign financing system by increasing the amount of money that can be voluntarily donated on income tax forms from $3 to $10. He reasons that most candidates are forgoing the public campaign system because it does not make enough money available, and his bill would encourage them to use the system. Another of Meehan’s pending bills would repeal the military’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Meehan’s decision to leave Congress could bring relief for Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recently told the Chicago Tribune that “I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral” and that the military should keep “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”