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Attorney general preparing for Senate showdown over firings

WASHINGTON -- His job on the line, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales shelved plans for a family vacation and began prepping yesterday for a showdown with senators over the firings of federal prosecutors.

An appearance next week in front of a Senate panel that oversees Justice Department spending is shaping up as a trial run for Gonzales's scheduled April 17 testimony to a separate Senate committee investigating the eight dismissals.

The White House said yesterday that Gonzales's testimony cannot come too fast for the besieged attorney general to explain the firings that Democrats contend were politically motivated.

"Look, the attorney general thinks it's in everyone's best interest -- and we agree with him -- that he be able to get up and talk to Congress sooner than later," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

"I think the American people would like to see us resolve this, so that we can move on and work on other things. So we'd like to see the hearing moved up to next week," Perino said.

Gonzales initially said he was never involved in discussions about the firings -- a position he later changed to say he was only minimally aware of plans to remove the prosecutors. Last week, however, his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, said Gonzales was regularly briefed and participated in discussions about "this process of asking certain US attorneys to resign."

Growing numbers of Democrats and Republicans have demanded for Gonzales to step down, saying he is no longer a credible attorney general.

Democrats leading the Senate Judiciary Committee's inquiry of the firings maintain it is too late to move up the April 17 date -- a day Gonzales initially requested. But the attorney general will get a pre emptive shot to tell his side of the story at an April 12 hearing on his department's 2008 budget.

Senate judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy will attend the budget hearing, where the prosecutors issue is expected to come up, according to aides.

That hearing might not, however, yield "the kind of specific interrogation" that Gonzales will face a week later, said Leahy spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

After several weeks of traveling around the country, promoting efforts to curb child abuse, Gonzales is now buckling down to prepare for his two Senate appearances, Justice officials said.