Ashcroft pledges to protect all

Attorney general nominee vows to suppress own views

Demonstrators thrown out

Tough questioning of conservative mixes with support

January 17, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Seeking to calm his critics, John Ashcroft pledged yesterday to enforce all federal laws if he is confirmed as attorney general, including those he disagrees with, and he said he regards the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion as "the settled law of the land."

At a contentious first-day hearing in what is expected to be the most closely fought confirmation battle for any of George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees, the staunchly conservative former senator added that if his deeply held religious views ever created a conflict for him, he would resign rather than violate his oath to enforce "all of the law for all of the people."

"I don't believe that's going to happen," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a standing-room-only session that will continue this morning. "My personal belief is that the law is supreme and that I don't place myself above the law."

In response to charges that he might try to weaken or reverse the landmark 1973 abortion decision, Ashcroft said: "I believe Roe vs. Wade, as an original matter, was decided wrongly. I am personally opposed to abortion. But I well understand that the role of the attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it."

Ashcroft also said he would enforce laws that protect women from harassment outside abortion clinics.

But Democrats on the committee contended that Ashcroft's long public career as attorney general and governor of Missouri - and particularly his six years in the Senate - reveal extreme right-wing views on areas under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. They listed gun control, civil rights, school desegregation, gay rights and women's rights, as well as abortion.

"We know that while serving in high office, he has time and again aggressively used litigation and legislation in creative and inappropriate ways to advance his political and ideological goals," charged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "How can we have any confidence that he won't do the same thing with the vast new powers he will have at his disposal as attorney general of the United States?"

Despite Ashcroft's promises to respect "settled law," Democrats on the committee wondered whether it is even possible for him to cast aside his personal views.

"It is not credible to say that you - or anyone - can just administer the law like a robot, as if the law is not subject to feelings or strong convictions," said Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat. "It is up to you to explain to us why your convictions will not permeate, dominate or even overwhelm the Department of Justice."

The angriest exchange came when Kennedy demanded that Ashcroft explain why, as Missouri attorney general and as governor, he opposed a voluntary desegregation plan for St. Louis schools in which a federal court had found state violations.

"How costly was this going to be," Kennedy said, "before you were going to do something about those kids going to lousy schools?"

Ashcroft maintained that he followed court orders and that the school segregation was the result not of any state action, but of demographic changes in the city.

Even with some sharp questioning, though, the committee, treated Ashcroft more cordially than the high tension outside the room would suggest.

The panel is evenly divided between the two parties and is being run by Democrats until Bush's inauguration, when the power tilts back to the Republicans.

The 50 Senate Republicans are united behind the nominee, according to the Republican whip, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who said last week that he thinks Ashcroft's confirmation is assured. Democrats have generally withheld making any commitments.

A soft-spoken, amiable man who appeared on social occasions as one of the "Singing Senators," Ashcroft was accorded the deference expected for one of the club. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, joked that, having once accepted a "wild, somewhat hair-raising ride" in Ashcroft's car, he would be more troubled if the Republican had been named transportation secretary.

But across the nation, liberal and conservative interest groups have made the Ashcroft nomination a top priority fight, full of high rhetoric and invective. Both sides staged rallies and protests at the Capitol yesterday and have flooded Senate offices with phone calls and e-mail.

Four people, protesting Ashcroft's opposition to needle exchange programs, were removed from the committee room yesterday after they began shouting: "Dead addicts can't recover. Ashcroft kills."

Particularly among liberal groups, the Ashcroft fight appears to be fueled, in part, by frustration at the outcome of the disputed presidential election, which some feel was unfairly resolved in Bush's favor by the Supreme Court. The full array of groups normally supportive of Democrats are throwing all their muscle against him.

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