Senate panel approves Ashcroft

Confirmation may be as soon as tonight

January 31, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Former Sen. John Ashcroft's nomination to be attorney general gained narrow approval yesterday from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his confirmation by the full Senate later this week now seems assured.

Meanwhile, Gale Norton won confirmation as interior secretary, despite opposition from 24 Democrats, including both Maryland senators. Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was easily confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Judiciary Committee, on a 10-8 vote, recommended that the Senate confirm Ashcroft, who has drawn more intense opposition than any of President Bush's other Cabinet picks. Liberal Democrat Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin joined all of the panel's Republicans in supporting Ashcroft.

The Missouri Republican still faces hours of attacks from his former Democratic colleagues in Senate floor debate, which began yesterday. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is leading the opposition, has abandoned any threat of using delaying tactics, however, and a final vote could come as early as late tonight or tomorrow.

"This is a good, wise man, just the sort of man we should have serving as attorney general," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee. "When he takes an oath and swears to uphold the law, he's going to do that. And I think he's going to serve us well and serve us proud."

Feingold, the only Democrat to back Ashcroft in committee, couched his support in terms of Senate tradition. Despite voicing serious concerns about Ashcroft's conservative record, Feingold noted that the Senate typically does not reject a Cabinet nominee solely on the basis of ideology.

"I don't believe we should begin to do so now," Feingold said. And in the context of the bitter post-election fight, he added, he was afraid that an outright rejection of Ashcroft would look "too much like political payback."

Feingold's support for Ashcroft came as at least a mild surprise. In the hours leading up to the committee vote, he had been regarded as undecided.

But Ashcroft was assured of surviving the committee vote, even if the nine Republicans and nine Democrats had voted along party lines. Under the power-sharing arrangement worked out earlier this year, the panel's Republican chairman could have sent a deadlocked nomination on to the full Senate anyway.

Opponents now concede they cannot defeat the nomination. But they say if a large number of Democrats vote against Ashcroft, it could act as a brake on the new attorney general's conservatism once he is in office.

"It would be unique in terms of recent American political history [for] any attorney general, whether Republican or Democrat, [to] have the kind of vote of rejection that you'll see here in the United States Senate," predicted Kennedy.

Kennedy said he hoped that the large number of anti-Ashcroft votes "would sensitize him" on issues such as abortion and civil rights.

The Ashcroft controversy has been the fiercest of any fight over a Cabinet nominee since the Senate refused to confirm Sen. John Tower as defense secretary in the administration of Bush's father 12 years ago.

Interior secretary-designate Norton, the Bush Cabinet nominee who has drawn the most opposition after Ashcroft, won confirmation by a vote of 75-24.

Her opponents, dubbed the "bitter left" by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said they were troubled by Norton's record of protecting private property rights against intrusion by federal regulators.

"Ms. Norton's record raises serious concerns about her appropriateness to serve as our highest-ranking land conservation official," Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said in voting against the nomination. "Her record indicates that her views are fundamentally incompatible with the mission of the department she seeks to lead."

Through a spokesman, her fellow Maryland Democrat, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, said Norton's "anti-environmental record is not right for Maryland and its environmental treasures, such as the Chesapeake Bay."

Twenty-five mainly Southern and Western Democrats joined all 50 Republican senators in backing Norton, a former Colorado attorney general.

By contrast, EPA chief nominee Whitman was confirmed by a vote of 99-0. Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, snowed in at his home in North Dakota, missed both votes.

Except for Ashcroft, all 14 members of the Bush Cabinet have now been confirmed.

Yesterday, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee sought to characterize the criticism of Ashcroft as misdirected and unfair. But Democrats continued to maintain that his strong conservative views would make it impossible for him to approach the job of attorney general in an even-handed manner.

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