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The battle over fired US attorneys

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The Bush administration's controversial firing of eight US attorneys sets up a major clash between the White House and the new Congress, as Democrats step up efforts to rein in new presidential powers.

At issue is whether the Justice Department's decision to replace these top federal prosecutors was a political purge and, if so, what Congress can do about it.

As a start, lawmakers are revisiting a last-minute provision added to last year's reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act at the request of the Justice Department. It gives the president authority to replace a US attorney without going back to the Senate for confirmation. At the time, no lawmaker noticed. But dramatic testimony Tuesday from fired attorneys, who appeared only after Congress began issuing subpoenas, is fueling a push to strike the provision.

The back-to-back Senate and House hearings also raised questions about whether three Republican lawmakers tried to influence public corruption investigations, in violation of congressional ethics rules.

"This week, the House and Senate have launched hearings into two scandals – the neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of several US attorneys by the Bush administration – that profoundly demonstrate just how important it is that Democrats have restored broad and vigorous oversight," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, in a statement on Wednesday.

A first move is to revoke the single sentence in the USA Patriot Act that allows the president to replace a US attorney without Senate confirmation.

"For over 150 years, the process of appointing interim US attorneys has worked with virtually no problems. Now, just one year after receiving unchecked authority in a little-known section added to the Patriot Act last spring, the administration has significantly abused its discretion," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California at Tuesday's Senate hearing.

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