- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Conservatives say they remain confident Attorney General John Ashcroft will be able to implement his agenda, despite concerns that he conceded too much to liberal critics during his Senate confirmation hearings.

"Ashcroft didn't spend almost 30 years in public life as a conservative only to become a liberal overnight because Ted Kennedy didn't like what he stood for," said Mark Levin, former chief of staff under Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

"I have heard questions raised that he's been neutered, that the left scared him," said Jerris Leonard, former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Nixon administration.

But Mr. Leonard agrees with Charles Cooper, assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, who says, "I don't know of anything in the confirmation hearings that has handcuffed him."

An implacable abortion foe, Mr. Ashcroft said during his confirmation hearing that Roe vs. Wade is a settled issue. He also said his priorities will include opposing teen drug use and fighting discrimination against women and minorities in housing and voting.

"He seemed to issue a less-than-strenuous statement indicating support and understanding of the Second Amendment, and he said he wouldn't lobby for changing the abortion laws," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican.

Mr. Cooper said pro-lifers may have some reason for disappointment but "Ashcroft said he does not believe it is the president's agenda [to try to overturn Roe vs. Wade] and therefore not Aschroft's agenda. And for him to say Roe vs. Wade is settled law is not controversial. Roe vs. Wade is a settled, indisputable fact."

Arguing that there was too much political interference in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, Mr. Leonard said Mr. Ashcroft "should let every subordinate know that a call from anyone at the White House, even the vice president or president, should be treated kindly. But other than giving information that's appropriate, they shouldn't be taking direction from anybody at the White House."

"Sometimes underlings get a call from the White House and they think it is God. And sometimes that's how the attorney general can get blindsided," said Mr. Leonard.

Mr. Barr said, "I operate on the presumption that Ashcroft has not changed and that he will set the standard that nobody is above the law and look skeptically at new powers for law enforcement, such as expanded wiretap and search-and-seizure powers."

Mr. Barr, himself a former federal prosecutor, added: "Government needs powers but these have to be weighed very carefully against the civil liberties contained in the Bill of Rights. That is somewhat different from the traditional Republican approach, which is to give law enforcement whatever it says it needs."

Lisa Dean, Free Congress Foundation technology-policy director, also expects Mr. Ashcroft to reverse Janet Reno's "expansion of government wiretap and surveillance powers, a mind-set that even some conservatives bought into but not Ashcroft, who holds the opposite view."

Mr. Cooper said Mr. Ashcroft's pledge to fight discrimination isn't an endorsement of quotas. "If you say you are in favor of affirmative action, it doesn't mean you are for quotas. I have no doubt he will challenge quotas at every opportunity," he said.

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