WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush reluctantly gives up a member his shrinking inner circle with the exit of besieged Alberto Gonzales, but gains a chance to mend relations with Congress and pursue his agenda on terrorism and Iraq.
But much of the outlook for a change in mood in Washington depends on Bush’s choice of a new attorney general to succeed Gonzales, a close friend whom the president bitterly said had been “dragged through the mud” by partisan debate.
Gonzales drew political fire as White House counsel and later as attorney general, culminating in Democrats seeking an investigation for possible perjury in testimony to Congress.
Critics accuse him of advocating policies that eroded civil liberties and led to abuse of terrorism suspects, and say he turned the Justice Department into a White House political arm.
Democratic political leaders and analysts said a consensus nominee to succeed Gonzales would show that Bush is willing to work with Congress as he faces debate beginning next month over the Iraq war and his legal powers to fight terrorism.
Democrats vow to continue probe into the firings of federal prosecutors under Gonzales, which have sparked a battle with the White House over accusations the firings were politically motivated. Gonzales said on Monday he would leave on September 17, but gave no reason.
“The investigations will have to continue; there is no question about that,” said New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, a Judiciary Committee member and leading critic of Gonzales.
“But if the president nominates an attorney general who puts rule of law first ... he will find a welcoming hand from the Congress.”
One potential successor, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, could spark trouble. Schumer said he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont had discussed the possibility and “many of us have doubts.”
Chertoff’s department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized over the bungled federal rescue effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the often-criticized immigration agencies.
Republican strategist Charles Black, who has close ties to the Bush administration, said he believed the White House had not made a final decision on a successor to Gonzales.
An early test will come in September as the Senate seeks to revisit legislation passed this month that expands the government’s power to conduct electronic surveillance.
Democrats have been stung by a backlash from supporters who said the legislation gave too much power to Bush and the attorney general. Party leaders have promised to seek to revise the measure before it expires in six months. Leahy has also demanded the White House turn over documents on the spying program.
Bush’s Iraq policy will also face new debates with an assessment due September 15 of the U.S. troop escalation and an administration request for more war funding.
Gonzales’s departure will eliminate a source of friction. “It’s a deck-clearing exercise intended to remove political diversions,” said political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas, a longtime follower of Bush’s career.
Gonzales decided on his own to quit and Bush did not try to talk him out of it, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. Bush said he reluctantly accepted it.
Black added, “I was told that nobody nudged him, because the president made it clear he did not want him nudged.”
Bush has been famously loyal to his appointees, particularly the inner circle he brought from Texas. But almost all of the tightest members of that circle are now gone.
White House political aide Karl Rove, who was also a focus of the prosecutors’ dispute, resigned earlier this month.
It is a sign of his political weakness that Bush could no longer protect aides such as Gonzales, said presidential historian Robert Dallek.
The Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he hoped Congress can now work out a compromise in its stalemate with the White House over demands that Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers testify on their roles in the prosecutors’ firings.
Specter called Gonzales’ departure “a major helpful turn of events.”
additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Rick Cowan