08/27/2007 0:07 AM ET; Updated 11:18 AM ET
WASHINGTON (CBS/AP)- Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, announced his resignation Monday, ending a nasty, monthslong standoff over his honesty and competence at the helm of the Justice Department.
Republicans and Democrats alike had demanded his resignation over the botched handling of FBI terror investigations and the firings of U.S. attorneys, but President Bush had defiantly stood by his Texas friend until accepting his resignation Friday.
"It has been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice," Gonzales said in a brief statement in Washington. He said his resignation will take effect on Sept. 17, 2007.
He reflected on his up-from-the-bootstraps life story, the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico who didn't finish elementary school.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," Gonzales said.
Mr. Bush was expected to discuss Gonzales' departure at his Texas ranch before leaving on a trip to western states.
A senior Justice Department official said Solicitor General Paul Clement, would be named acting attorney general until a permanent replacement is found.
Among those being mentioned as a possible permanent successor is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff, said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen, "at least has the distinction of being a known entity and someone who has gone through the confirmation process before and survived. So it's no surprise that he's on the short list."
Gonzales served more than two years as the nation's top law enforcement official. Lawmakers had voiced doubts about his truthfulness in combative and often evasive testimony to Congress.
"Better late than never," said Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, summing up the response of many in Washington.
Republicans reacted cautiously.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who offered only muted support for the attorney general when some Republicans called for Gonzales' resignation, on Monday largely blamed his troubles on Democrats.
"It is my hope that whomever President Bush selects as the next attorney general, he or she is not subjected to the same poisonous partisanship that we've sadly grown accustomed to over the past eight months," McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.
For his part, Mr. Bush steadfastly - and at times angrily - refused to give in to critics, even from his own Republican Party, who argued that Gonzales should go. Earlier this month at a news conference, the president grew irritated when asked about accountability in his administration and turned the tables on the Democratic Congress.
"Implicit in your questions is that Al Gonzales did something wrong. I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," Mr. Bush said testily.
Gonzales, 52, called the president on Friday to inform him of his resignation, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to not pre-empt Gonzales' statement. Mr. Bush had Gonzales come to lunch at his ranch on Sunday as a parting gesture.
The announcement comes just days after Mr. Bush's longtime political strategist Karl Rove announced his resignation and marks the last in a long line of loyal aides who will be absent from the White House as the president enters his final year in office.
"It is commonplace to see longtime administration members, especially controversial ones, leave office toward the end of a president's term," said CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. "But this president has now lost every important member of a team which has been with him since his days as governor of Texas. The departure of the embattled Gonzales may help the administration move forward for its final year, but the president will do so without those who have surrounded him throughout most of his political career."
He said Gonzales's resignation "reinforces what Congress and the American people already know - that no Justice Department should be allowed to become a political arm of the White House."
A frequent Democratic target, Gonzales could not satisfy critics who said he had lost credibility over the Justice Department's handling of warrantless wiretaps related to the threat of terrorism, and the firings of several U.S. attorneys.
As attorney general and earlier as White House counsel, Gonzales pushed for expanded presidential powers, including the eavesdropping authority. He drafted controversial rules for military war tribunals and sought to limit the legal rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay - prompting lawsuits by civil libertarians who said the government was violating the Constitution in its pursuit of terrorists.
There were indications that the resignation came suddenly. Mr. Bush normally handles Cabinet resignations with efficiency, only allowing news of them to leak when a successor has been chosen and appearing with both the person departing and the replacement when the public announcement was made. That was not to be the case this time, the official said.
The president had no candidates for Gonzales' replacement to his ranch over the weekend for interviews, the official said.
"It has been a long and difficult struggle but at last, the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, a vocal critic.
The controversy over the fired prosecutors proved to be the deciding factor for Gonzales, whose truthfulness in testimony to Congress was drawn into question.
Lawmakers said the dismissals of the federal prosecutors appeared to be politically motivated, and some of the fired U.S. attorneys said they felt pressured to investigate Democrats before elections. Gonzales maintained that the dismissals were based the prosecutors' lackluster performance records.
Thousands of documents released by the Justice Department show a White House plot, created shortly after the 2004 elections, to replace U.S. attorneys. At one point, senior White House officials, including Rove, suggested replacing all 93 prosecutors. In December 2006, eight were ordered to resign.
In several House and Senate hearings into the firings, Gonzales and other Justice Department officials failed to fully explain them without contradicting each other.
In 2004, Gonzales pressed to reauthorize a secret domestic spying program over the Justice Department's protests. Gonzales was White House counsel at the time and during a dramatic hospital confrontation, he and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card sought approval from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was in intensive care. Ashcroft refused.
The White House subsequently reauthorized the program without the department's approval. Later, Mr. Bush ordered changes to the program to help the department defend its legality. The domestic surveillance program was later declared unconstitutional by a federal judge and since has been changed to require court approval before surveillance can be conducted.
Similarly, Gonzales found himself on the defensive in early March for FBI's improper and, in some cases, illegal prying into Americans' personal information during terror and spy probes. On March 9, the Justice Department's inspector general released an audit showing that FBI agents, over a three-year period, demanded telephone and Internet companies to hand over their customers' personal information without official authorization.
The damning audit also found that the FBI had improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances, and concluded that it underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters to ask businesses to turn over customer data. The letters are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge's approval.
Gonzales declared himself upset and frustrated over the findings. But lawmakers said they had begun to lose confidence in him.