WASHINGTON—Allegations that politics improperly influenced the Bush administration's decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year are providing the new Democratic majority in Congress with a long-sought opening to investigate the maneuverings of White House political strategist Karl Rove.
The testimony in the Senate this week by a former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales seemed only to heighten Democratic lawmakers' determination to force Rove to provide a sworn, public accounting of his role in the controversy. In that seven-hour testimony by Kyle Sampson, Rove's name came up some 70 times.
Democrats have long seen Rove—the guru of President Bush and Republican Party successes—as having too heavy a hand in the operations of federal agencies in ways that unduly injected politics into policy. But as the minority party for the last six years of the Bush presidency, the Democrats lacked the power to investigate him.
In recent weeks, House Democrats have been asking whether Rove, who's the president's deputy chief of staff, or his aides exerted improper political influence on the General Services Administration, after learning of a controversial presentation to 40 of the agency's political appointees.
But the U.S. attorneys' scandal has given Democrats the strongest ammunition.
Democrats are asking whether the Justice Department's unusual move of dumping eight of the administration's handpicked prosecutors was meant to undercut criminal probes of Republicans, prompt prosecutions of Democrats or otherwise influence the outcome of elections. The administration has denied any impropriety, and documents turned over to investigators so far haven't exposed any such evidence.
Nonetheless, Democrats are suspicious.
Even some Republicans say Rove should come to Capitol Hill to answer questions.
"I think we ought to hear from him—candidly, sooner rather than later," Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday. "We ought to try to get to the bottom of all these factual situations so that we can make a determination as to who ought to stay, who ought to go."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who's leading the investigation, told McClatchy Newspapers on Friday that Sampson's testimony left wide open the question of who was calling the shots regarding the firings and hirings.
"That makes it even more important to interview other officials, including Karl Rove," he said.
The White House has refused demands for sworn, public testimony from Rove and other top officials, saying presidential decision-making with top advisers would be compromised. Instead, Bush's lawyers say they're willing to have Rove and others come in for closed-door interviews with lawmakers, without oaths or transcripts.
House and Senate Judiciary Committees have authorized their chairmen to subpoena Rove and other White House officials if the standoff continues.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday that the Democrats were trying to put on "show trials."
"They have made such a spectacle of this," Perino said. "I don't know how we could have been any more forthcoming."
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former counselor to President Clinton, said he believes in the importance of protecting executive privilege, but that Bush can't use it "as a shield to protect 1,100 White House employees from all forms of accountability. Not under oath? With no transcript? That's a cocktail party, that's not an investigation."
The White House has acknowledged that Rove passed along complaints about U.S. attorneys, but it downplayed the notion that he played an integral role in whom to fire or why.
Noel Francisco, a former associate White House counsel who helped select Bush's original U.S. attorneys in 2001, said it makes "perfect sense" for Rove to have been involved in hirings—and a lesser role in dismissals—because he was the point person for receiving recommendations on presidential appointments from home-state senators and other Republicans.
That doesn't mean anything improper occurred, Francisco said.
Justice Department e-mails surrendered to congressional investigators show that Rove had more than a passing involvement.
But Sampson's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday failed to satisfy senators' questions about the extent of Rove's involvement.
Rove had complained to Gonzales about the failure of three U.S. attorneys to prosecute voter fraud aggressively, Sampson testified. His list included former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who was fired last December, a move Sampson said he now regrets.
Sampson also said he was in regular communication with two top Rove deputies over the evolving strategy to replace top federal prosecutors who had displeased the administration.
One of those replacing an ousted prosecutor was Tim Griffin, who once worked for Rove.
Sampson said updates on the U.S. attorneys' plan were sometimes discussed at the tail end of weekly administration meetings on judicial nominations—meetings routinely attended by Rove or his deputies.
However, Sampson's memory repeatedly lapsed when he was pressed for details about the extent of Rove's interest and involvement in the decisions.
At one point, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Sampson to clarify an e-mail in which Sampson wanted to pass information to Rove's office through the White House counsel's office.
"I don't remember," Sampson said.
"Well, I wish you did remember," Leahy replied. "It would be awfully helpful."
Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, said the Democrats' takeover of Congress, combined with Bush's waning power and the administration's exceptionally centralized control of federal agencies had created a tinderbox for Rove.
"Especially if you lose a midterm election and start running into strong-willed Democrats who want to do aggressive oversight in advance of a presidential election," Light said. "The dotted lines all lead to Karl Rove."