Before the symbolic vote was scheduled, every avenue had been tried to rein in the overzealous head of the Justice Department, but nothing seemed to take.
Whether it was dragging him to Capitol Hill for a public thrashing, or courts repeatedly telling the Bush administration that the attorney general was flat-out wrong in the way he seeks to mete out justice to imprisoned suspects with terror ties, Alberto Gonzales seems impervious to change.
As both Specter and the White House have said, the no-confidence vote was a political exercise. But, at this point, an exasperated Congress had to try all avenues to bring a vestige of sanity to the operations of the Department of Justice.
It's somewhat ironic that the failed attempt on a no-confidence vote came on the same day that, again, courts told the Bush administration that its version of hybrid justice for terror suspects was wrong, and one day after Colin Powell took to "Meet the Press" to declare that the prison at Guantanamo should be dismantled, and habeas corpus restored.
Gonzales has been, since he was White House counsel, the chief defender of the legality of such questionable practices. It is especially disturbing that he has continued to be such a strong advocate for watering down the Bill of Rights when the attorney general is supposed to defend the rule of law and the Constitution - with no discrimination.
Of course, the original impetus for the no-confidence vote - the firings of a number of U.S. attorneys for political reasons - is still festering. That was a perversion of the justice system that occurred under the nose of the man who should be the system's chief defender.
Unfortunately, Gonzales still clings to the feeble defense that he has testified to a number of times - "I can't recall." In legalese, that means, "I'm guilty as sin, but I'm not gonna admit it."
A president with any respect for the system of law would have fired Gonzales by now, but President Bush has expressed nothing but support. Gonzales shows no signs of backing down as long as the president looks out for him.
And with this failed vote, his position seems secure - for the moment.
No, these aren't normal times, and the normal exercises in checks and balances don't seem to be working.
So, yes, a vote of no confidence would have been a lot of political theater. But even with this turn of events, Sen. Specter is still right.
Congress must do anything and everything it can to save the rule of law and due process from the cancer that the president refuses to remove from the U.S. Justice Department. *