WASHINGTON—Three Republican senators expressed skepticism Sunday about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' credibility, setting up what one of them called a "make or break" moment for him when he testifies before Congress about his role in firing eight U.S. Attorneys.
"The attorney general has a lot of explaining to do," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Attorney General Gonzales' testimony will be a make or break situation for him."
The committee is scheduled to hear from Gonzales on April 17 but could move that date forward.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans have voiced concerns that the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year was rooted in a bid to make the federal law enforcers servants of partisan politics rather than the even-handed rule of law.
While President Bush stands behind Gonzales and resists calls for his resignation, if enough lawmakers turn against him, especially his fellow Republicans, it would be difficult for Gonzales to discharge his responsibilities for lack of confidence in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee is the primary panel overseeing the Justice Department.
The looming showdown with Gonzales centered Sunday on the shifting accounts of his role in the attorneys' dismissals—he said at a March 13 press conference that he'd known nothing about it, then was apparently contradicted by e-mails released Friday night revealing that he'd attended an hour-long meeting to discuss the dismissals 10 days before they occurred.
Specter said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he spoke with Gonzales on Saturday, after Friday night's release of e-mails and documents.
"I told him that he would have an opportunity, as far as I was concerned, to present his case, but that he was going to have to have an explanation as to why he said he wasn't involved in discussions—that's the key word—and now you have these e-mails which appear to contradict that."
Specter said it's critical to determine if Gonzales was truthful about his role—and that lying would be grounds to get rid of him.
"We have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful, and if we find he has not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that Gonzales has been politically wounded. "He has said some things that just don't add up," Graham said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Democrats are taking a harder line.
"I don't believe he (Gonzales) enjoys the confidence of the American people or of Congress," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Senate Democratic leader and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He spoke Sunday on "Meet the Press."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also a Judiciary Committee member, on Sunday joined the ranks of those calling for Gonzales to resign.
"I think he has been damaged very badly. He certain has in my eyes and, and I believe, in the eyes of the nation and the eyes of many, many senators," Feinstein said on "Fox News Sunday." "I believe he should step down."
Two prominent Republican senators defended Gonzales, saying he did nothing illegal or improper, even if the firings were bungled.
"He's an honest man," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on CNN's "Late Edition." He, too, is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. "He's honest, he's decent and he's honorable. But let's be honest about it, the Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing. There's no question about it. There's no excuse for it."
"I see no evidence that anything illegal was done or improper," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said on the "Fox News Sunday" program. He's the second-ranking Senate Republican leader as whip. "It is a fact that it hasn't been handled well. ... But the president has every right to fire U.S. attorneys."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said that Gonzales has been damaged and suggested he cannot serve effectively—but stopped short of urging that he be fired.
"I think the president is going to have to make a tough choice here," Hagel said on ABC's "This Week."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson and Steven Thomma contributed.)