Senate opens hearings on Bush Cabinet picks

Evans likely to get OK

Norton, Ashcroft, others could face tougher fight

January 05, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -The Senate confirmation process for President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees got off to a smooth start yesterday with a bipartisan embrace for his proposed commerce secretary, but at least three other Bush choices face major resistance.

Leaders of the Commerce Committee said they expected that Donald L. Evans, an oil executive who is a close Bush friend and top campaign fund-raiser, would be approved as commerce secretary soon after Bush's inauguration Jan. 20. Several Democrats questioned how Evans would handle the release of politically sensitive census information, but Evans sidestepped the issue.

Bush's nominations of John Ashcroft for attorney general, Linda Chavez for labor secretary and Gale A. Norton for interior secretary - and perhaps others - are likely to face much tougher grilling.

Civil rights, labor, abortion rights and environmental groups are busily organizing against them, aware of the long odds against defeating the nominations but intent at least on sending Bush a message to make more conciliatory choices in the future. So far, his nominees have been a mix of mainstream moderates and the more conservative choices who are drawing fire from liberal groups.

"I'm one who actually read his campaign statements on uniting and not dividing," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who said he was surprised by some of Bush's choices. "I guess that was last year's sound bite."

Some critics argue that Bush seems concerned more about placating the conservative core of his party than in making good on pledges of bipartisanship. Some opponents say the circumstances of his contested victory left a lingering bitterness that has emboldened the opposition.

"A lot of people felt disenfranchised" by the election result, said Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader. "These appointments make them feel even more disenfranchised."

The confirmation fights will also likely serve as a rallying point for groups that opposed Bush to reorganize, and to raise money and support for the next election.

Bush reiterated his confidence yesterday that all his choices would be confirmed, calling them "good, solid Americans who will be able to do the job to which I've appointed them." Most of them were on Capitol Hill yesterday, paying courtesy calls on the senators who will vote on their nominations.

Evans, who spent 15 years leading a Texas energy firm, is among Bush's safest choices. He offered himself as a one-time "roughneck on oil rigs" who would "foster a marketplace where ideas and energy can thrive, where the entrepreneurial spirit will flourish."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told the committee that Evan's struggle to keep his company afloat during the oil patch downturn of the 1980s made him sympathetic to concerns of businesses in good times and bad.

But Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, could not get Evans to say how he would handle the release of census data that states would use to redraw districts for state and local elections.

Figures from the household-to-household head counts used to allocate congressional seats have already been released. But those numbers are expected to be "corrected" soon through statistical sampling that, Democrats argue, will provide a more accurate picture of the population.

Evans told Kerry that he believed the decision on whether to use the corrected numbers would be made by the census staff, but he stopped short of committing himself to abiding by that decision.

Republicans in Congress have staunchly opposed the use of statistical sampling, because people typically missed by the headcount - blacks, Hispanics, the urban poor - tend to vote Democratic.

Despite the hedging, most Democratic committee members promised to support Evans.

By contrast, Ashcroft, who lost his Senate seat in the November election, will likely campaign aggressively for confirmation, though he will probably enjoy the benefit of the doubt that senators usually extend to one of their own.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is among the leaders of a broad spectrum of groups arrayed against Ashcroft, because of what they call his extreme conservative views on such issues as abortion, gun control, environmental protection and civil rights.

"This is going to be a serious fight," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the group People for the American Way. "We're talking about the top law enforcement officer in the country."

Ashcroft is facing criticism for leading the 1999 Senate opposition that defeated President Clinton's nomination of Ronnie White, the first black judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, for a federal judgeship. Ashcroft accused White of being too hesitant to back the death penalty. But Leahy and others have noted that White supported the death penalty in most such cases before him.

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