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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush voiced lukewarm confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Wednesday, shortly before a conservative lawmaker became the first Republican in Congress to urge Bush to fire him.
Gonzales appeared to be battling for survival as the nation's highest law enforcement officer amid a mounting political firestorm over his Justice Department's dismissal of eight U.S. federal prosecutors.
"I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales," Bush said, but he added that Gonzales needed to go to Capitol Hill to answer questions and ease concerns.
"I'm frankly not happy about" how the U.S. attorneys' firings were handled, Bush told a news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Merida, Mexico.
The Justice Department has said the U.S. attorneys were fired last year largely because of policy differences or performance problems. But critics charge it appears that they may have been ousted for political reasons.
Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire called for Gonzales' dismissal. He complained about the attorney general's handling of the firings as well as his earlier dealings with Congress on anti-terror efforts.
"The president should fire the attorney general and replace him as soon as possible with someone who can provide strong, aggressive leadership," Sununu said in a statement.
Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, resigned this week after acknowledging he had not told other department officials about the extent of his communications with the White House about firing the prosecutors.
With the Democratic-led Congress investigating, Bush said he had discussed the matter with Gonzales earlier in the day.
Bush noted he had a right to remove U.S. attorneys and had heard complaints about some of them that he had passed along to Gonzales. But he said he did not tell Gonzales who should be fired, although he believed the sackings were justified.
"Yet this issue was mishandled to the point, now, where you're asking me questions about it in Mexico," Bush said.
Several Democrats in Congress have called on Gonzales to resign. A number of Republicans have voiced concerns, but Sununu was the first on Capitol Hill to call for him to be replaced.
Gonzales appeared on morning TV shows where he said he was working to make sure Congress receives the information it needs, and brushed off calls to step aside.
"I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. That's a decision for the president to make," Gonzales told Fox News.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York accused Bush and Gonzales of having failed to respond adequately to the matter. "When it's possible the law was broken, admitting mistakes, but not doing anything about it, does not cut it," Schumer said.
"We need a full accounting from the White House as to what went on here, the resignation of the attorney general, and a clarification from the president of his role," Schumer said.
Two former prosecutors charge they received improper calls from Republican lawmakers or staff shortly before being fired If it is determined it amounted to interference with a federal investigation, it would be a violation of law.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland