Washington state

Senate moves to curb replacement of attorneys

Federal prosecutor in Washington state among 7 to resign

WASHINGTON - A Senate panel advanced a bill Thursday to curb the Justice Department's power to replace federal prosecutors after seven forced resignations sparked accusations of political favoritism.

The Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to send the measure to the Senate floor, where it is certain to face opposition from Republicans who oppose giving more appointment power to federal judges.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get it to the floor next week," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"It'll be over my objection," shot back Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona.

The House is expected to begin hearings on a similar bill next month.

Three Republicans, Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, joined all of the panel's Democrats in backing the bill.

The panel's action came a day after one of those fired, former U.S. Attorney John McKay of Washington state, said his resignation was ordered by the administration without explanation seven months after he received a favorable job evaluation.

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and may be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all. It's the process of replacement that, the bill's proponents argue, should prevent political cronyism.

Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the measure would eliminate a provision in the USA Patriot Act that gave the attorney general new power to replace fired U.S. attorneys indefinitely, avoiding the Senate confirmation process.

Feinstein's bill would allow the attorney general to appoint an interim U.S. attorney for 120 days. If after that time someone had not been nominated and confirmed by the Senate, authority to appoint an interim U.S. attorney would fall to the district court.

The bill would apply to any interim U.S. attorneys who have not been confirmed, including those appointed to replace the seven prosecutors who have been fired since the Patriot Act reauthorization went into effect, according to a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The Justice Department opposes the bill, saying the attorney general's authority to choose prosecutors should not be handed to courts because district court judges, they contend, are often unqualified to make such decisions. Kyl said he would remove his objection if Reid agreed to remove the provision giving district court judges the 120-day backup power to appoint interim prosecutors.

The Democrats cite the firings since March of seven U.S. attorneys from Arkansas to California, some without cause, as evidence that the administration is punishing prosecutors whose work targeted Republican allies and rewarding those faithful to the GOP.