WASHINGTON — Republican support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales eroded Sunday as three key senators sharply questioned his honesty over last fall's firings of eight federal prosecutors. Additionally, two Democrats joined the list of lawmakers calling for Gonzales' ouster.
Several Republicans also urged President Bush to allow sworn testimony from his top aides about their role in dismissing the U.S. attorneys _ a standoff threatening to result in Capitol Hill subpoenas of White House officials.
The embattled attorney general was facing the toughest test of his two-year tenure at the Justice Department with the release of documents suggesting he was more involved with the firings than he indicated earlier.
Democrats have accused the Justice Department and the White House of purging the prosecutors for political reasons. The Bush administration maintains the firings were not improper because U.S. attorneys are political appointees.
Stopping short of demanding Gonzales' resignation, Sen. Arlen Specter cited a Nov. 27 calendar entry placing the attorney general at a Justice Department meeting to discuss the dismissals. Those documents "appear to contradict" Gonzales' earlier statements that he never participated in such conversations, said Specter, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the Justice Department.
"We have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful. And if we find out he has not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on," said Specter, R-Pa.
Specter said he would wait until Gonzales' scheduled April 17 testimony to the committee before deciding whether he could continue to support the attorney general. He called it a "make or break" appearance.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Gonzales has been "wounded" by the firings. "He has said some things that just don't add up," said Graham, who also is on the Senate Judiciary panel. And Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the Justice Department has continually changed its story about the dismissals.
"You cannot have the nation's chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility," Hagel said.
At the same time, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida said Gonzales should step down.
"The nation is not well served by this," said Feinstein, whose state had two U.S. attorneys fired in the purge _ in San Diego and San Francisco. Nelson said Gonzales should resign because he has "lost his credibility" but added: "I think we ought to go through the procedures and hear what he says."
At a March 13 news conference, trying to stem the furor over the firings, Gonzales said, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood."
But his Nov. 27 schedule, included in a batch of memos sent to Capitol Hill late Friday, showed he attended an hour-long meeting at which, aides said, he approved a detailed plan for executing the purge.
The White House continued to back Gonzales, a fellow Texan and longtime friend of Bush. "The president supports the attorney general," White House spokeswoman Nicole Guillemard said Sunday. She said the White House does not believe Gonzales' statements were inconsistent with what his calendar showed.
Since the schedule's release, Justice aides have said Gonzales meant he was not involved in selecting the prosecutors when he said he didn't participate in discussions about their firings. "He didn't say he wasn't involved," former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie said Sunday.
Also, Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah reaffirmed their earlier support for Gonzales. Hatch called Gonzales "an honest man" but added: "But let's be honest about it, the Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing."
Gonzales has said he relied heavily on his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to orchestrate the dismissals. E-mails show Sampson, who resigned under fire March 12, considering whether prosecutors were "loyal Bushies" as one factor in demanding their resignations.
Sampson is scheduled to appear Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the dismissals. Chairman Patrick Leahy said he is concerned Sampson has become "the fall guy."
"And yet we find so many e-mails that contradict what the attorney general has said, contradict what the deputy attorney general has said, contradict what the White House has said," said Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy's committee has authorized subpoenas for presidential political adviser Karl Rove and other top White House staff linked to the firings. Bush wants his aides to be interviewed in private sessions and without being placed under oath.
Specter and Hagel have joined Democrats in rejecting the president's offer, while Graham and Lott said lawmakers should take it. "If you start subpoenaing the advisers to the president ... you're going to go to court," Graham said.
Three of the ousted U.S. attorneys Sunday said they have concluded their firings were politically motivated.
Former prosecutors John McKay in Seattle and David Iglesias in New Mexico both said they were rebuked in private conversations for not pursuing Democrats in their states more aggressively in election-year investigations. "It is troubling, connecting those political dots," Iglesias said.
Bud Cummins, who was replaced as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., by a Rove protegee, acknowledged political appointees can be fired for no reason.
"But in this case it looks like that authority was delegated down through (former White House counsel) Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old kids who got in a room together and tried to decide who was most loyal to the president," Cummins said.
Specter, McKay and Iglesias appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Feinstein spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Hagel was on "This Week" on ABC, Leahy, Graham and Cummins appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS, and Nelson, Hatch and Gillespie were on CNN's "Late Edition."