GOP lawmaker concerned about Justice staff departures

The firings of eight federal prosecutors last year will make it hard to attract top candidates to fill vacancies, senator says.

A Republican loyalist on Tuesday moved one step closer to calling for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, saying that the exodus of top staffers at the Justice Department was alarming and that rebuilding the staff "is going to be difficult" if the embattled Cabinet member stays on the job.

The Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a former U.S. attorney, did not directly call for Gonzales to resign, but he told reporters the attorney general and the White House "should wrestle with that very seriously because the Justice Department comes first."

Sessions added that the furor over the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year will make it difficult to recruit top candidates for Justice Department jobs.

"My concern is that we really will have to reconstitute a first-rate staff over there," Sessions said.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats are considering offering a non-binding resolution expressing "no confidence" in Gonzales.

Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, another member of the Judiciary Committee, have already called for Gonzales to leave. But it would be a particularly heavy blow for Gonzales if Sessions joined their call; the senator has long been known as a party loyalist and a strong backer of President Bush.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Gonzales is proving to be "a major distraction" and told reporters, "I still have concerns about his ability."

Sessions appeared to start losing confidence in Gonzales last week, when the embattled attorney general appeared before the Judiciary Committee. After Gonzales testified, Sessions suggested he "take the weekend considering" whether he should remain on the job and have a "frank discussion" about it with Bush.

Gonzales said earlier this week he would not resign and Bush reiterated his support for him, even as Democrats in both chambers stepped up their investigation into allegations that the eight U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons.