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GOP blocks bill designed to curb Justice powers

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans blocked a bill yesterday that would curb the Justice Department's power to fire and replace federal prosecutors. Democrats had sought to give the courts a role in the appointments of US attorneys, to GOP opposition.

The objection by Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, to the proposal was long anticipated. So Democrats used the occasion to complain anew about the firings of at least seven prosecutors, some without cause, under a little-known part of the Patriot Act.

Democrats say Attorney General Alberto Gonzales used the law to get around the Senate confirmation process and install Republican allies.

"I believe that their intent was to bring in people from the outside to give some of their bright people an opportunity," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "That is wrong."

Her bill says a replacement US attorney could serve no longer than 120 days without confirmation. After that time, an interim replacement would be named by a US District Court. Gonzales, Kyl, and other Republicans say this approach could lead prosecutors to be appointed for reasons other than their qualifications.

Republican and Democratic leaders tried for a compromise that might lengthen the 120-day period or curb a district court's appointment power.