WASHINGTON — A majority of the Senate voted Monday to register "no confidence" in embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a rare rebuke for a Cabinet official.
The 53-38 tally (with one senator voting "present") came on a procedural vote that fell seven votes short of the 60 needed under Senate rules to close debate and move to the formal vote of "no confidence," but the majority in favor of doing so left no doubt where most senators stood.
Hours earlier, President Bush made clear that he would ignore the vote in any case. While such a vote isn't binding, it is rare and could undermine Gonzales' legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Seven Republicans joined unanimous Democrats against Gonzales. They included Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Specter said he decided the resolution was in the best interests of the country and the Justice Department, despite his disgust at the "outright political chicanery" of Democrats in forcing the vote.
"Attorney General Gonzales has made representations which are false" and "there is no doubt the department at the present time is in shambles," Specter said.
But Specter added that the resolution was "designed to embarrass Republicans because it will be a gotcha 30-second commercial in later campaigns."
"My own sense is there is no confidence in the attorney general on this side of the aisle, but that the views will not be expressed in this format," he said.
Rather than defend Gonzales, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the resolution's sponsor, had a conflict of interest because he leads the Senate Democrats' campaign committee.
Republican Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi added: "Maybe we should be considering a vote of no confidence in the Senate or in the Congress for malfunction, for an inability to produce anything. This is not the British Parliament, and I hope it never will become the British Parliament."
Schumer rejected cries about politics.
"Repeatedly the attorney general has misled the Congress, misled the American
people," he said. "It is politics to voice opposition to the attorney general and then refuse to back one's conviction with one's vote."
Gonzales has been roundly criticized for a failure of leadership in the department's firing
last year of nine U.S. attorneys, which critics see as evidence of his alleged politicization of the administration of justice.
Gonzales further alienated many lawmakers by repeatedly testifying before Congress that he couldn't recall key conversations with President Bush and other White House personnel. His defense of a classified surveillance program involving warrantless wiretaps also turned some lawmakers against him.
Bush, traveling in Bulgaria on Monday, dismissed the Senate's stand before it occurred.
"This process has been drug out a long time, which says to me it's political," Bush said. "There's no wrongdoing. . . . 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."
Gonzales, speaking Monday in Miami, said he was focused on finishing out the remainder of Bush's second term over the next 18 months.
Other Republicans voting with Democrats were: Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon Smith of Oregon, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, voted against shutting off debate. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, voted present.
No-confidence votes are extremely rare and have no force of law in the American political system.
Christopher J. Deering, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said Monday's vote shows significant frustration with both Gonzales and Bush. But he said it doesn't carry the same weight as it would have if a majority of Republicans had signed on.
"It's probably significant in the sense that most presidents facing this kind of situation would pitch this guy overboard," Deering said. "Or other (attorneys general) would have the good sense to get out of the way. But it certainly doesn't look like it."