WASHINGTON — President Bush fought back Tuesday in the controversy over eight fired federal prosecutors, defending Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, refusing to let his aides testify publicly and demanding that Democrats "drop the partisanship."
"The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts," Bush said in a hastily arranged late-afternoon White House appearance. "There is no indication that anybody did anything improper."
The president's counterattack put the White House and Congress on a collision course over investigations into the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys last year. Democrats say they are increasingly convinced that at least some of the prosecutors were fired because they resisted political interference into their investigations, which, if true, could be obstruction of justice.
The growing controversy also threatened to sweep away any remaining hope for bipartisan harmony in a capital whose government is split between the two political parties.
Vowing to avoid partisan "show trials" in Congress, Bush said he would let presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and other aides meet in private with congressional investigators, without taking oaths to tell the truth under penalty of law.
Democrats demanded their public testimony under oath and dismissed Bush's offer to cooperate as a sham.
"If the president wants the truth to come out, then he would have testimony given in a far more full and open way," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "It seems as if the president wants to appear to be cooperative, but not really cooperate."
"After telling a bunch of different stories about why they fired the U.S. attorneys, the Bush administration is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "If Karl Rove plans to tell the truth, he has nothing to fear from being under oath like any other witness."
"Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That's the formula for true accountability," emphasized Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Earlier in the day, in a sweeping bipartisan rebuke of the administration, the Senate voted 94-2 to end Gonzales' power to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. That power had been inserted into a revision of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act last year at the request of the Justice Department.
The forcefulness of Bush's later response gave the attorney general more time to fight for his job and stunned Republicans who had predicted Gonzales' imminent resignation. Bush came to Gonzales' defense a day after White House aides began discussing possible replacements for the Justice Department post.
"He's got support with me," Bush said. "He's going to go up to Capitol Hill and he's going to explain. ... I've heard all these allegations and rumors. And people just need to hear the truth."
Bush had reaffirmed his support in a morning phone call to the attorney general before defending him publicly. White House spokesman Tony Snow said reports that the administration was seeking Gonzales' replacement were "flat false," though Republicans on Capitol Hill said his support there has collapsed and it was not clear he'd be able to keep his job.
One Republican lawmaker joined the calls for his resignation. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said the controversy over the firings was "simply the latest in a series of leadership failures" to justify Gonzales' ouster.
Others suggested that Gonzales' departure was probably inevitable.
"If the drumbeat keeps up I'm not sure he'll be around too long," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Gonzales, who grew up in poverty in Houston, has tied his career to Bush since Bush was governor of Texas. Although his loyalty to Bush is beyond question, he does not have much political backing outside the White House.
Democrats compared Bush's show of support for the embattled attorney general to the president's short-lived praise of Michael Brown, just before Brown was ousted as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Bush to Gonzales: You're Doing a Heckuva Job," the Democratic Party said in a press release issued minutes after Bush's remarks.
Bush repeated his view that the firings were appropriate, but were not properly explained to Congress. He said he'd send Congress "all White House documents and e-mails involving direct communications with the Justice Department or any other outside person, including members of Congress and their staff, related to this issue."
In addition, he said Gonzales will testify in public and the Justice Department has released about 3,000 pages of documents.
But Bush said forcing his closest White House advisers to testify in public would make it harder for him and future presidents to get candid advice.
"I will oppose any attempt to subpoena White House officials," he said. "If you haul somebody up in front of Congress and put them in oath and all the klieg lights and all the questioning, to me, it makes it very difficult for a president to get good advice."