- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

The Senate yesterday confirmed John Ashcroft as attorney general by a vote of 58-42, with eight Democrats joining all Republicans in resisting an intense campaign by liberal groups to defeat President Bush's nominee.

"John Ashcroft will go on to be one of the best attorney generals we've ever had," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "He will enforce the laws, some laws that have been ignored the last eight years."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush is "very pleased to have his Cabinet in place and ready to work for the American people."

"The votes have been bipartisan, and this vote by definition, too, is bipartisan," Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Ashcroft, 58, was sworn into office later in the day by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a private ceremony at the court. The two men worked together as assistant state attorneys general in Missouri in 1975 and 1976.

"Let me send a clear message today," Mr. Ashcroft said in a statement. "I will confront injustice by leading a professional Justice Department that is free of politics, that is uncompromisingly fair, a department defined by integrity and dedicated to upholding the rule of law. The Justice Department will vigorously enforce the law guaranteeing rights for the advancement of all Americans."

The Democrats who voted for Mr. Ashcroft were Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Mr. Breaux, the first politician from either party to meet with Mr. Bush during the presidential transition, said the Ashcroft nomination was simply "a bump in the road" for the new administration.

"While I wish President Bush had selected someone for attorney general more from the political center … the entire Bush Cabinet is diverse and is a reflection of the president's priorities," Mr. Breaux said.

As promised, in her first high-profile vote, freshman Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York voted against Mr. Ashcroft. She had said earlier in the week that Mr. Ashcroft's views are too extreme.

Asked after the vote by a New York reporter to explain her vote, the former first lady replied, "My answer is on my Web site," indicating that she didn't want to explain herself again.

All 10 Democratic women in the Senate voted against Mr. Ashcroft, including freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who was appointed to the seat after her husband, Mel, died in a plane crash and defeated Mr. Ashcroft posthumously.

Mrs. Carnahan said Mr. Ashcroft "was just too divisive for our country."

The Senate vote ended the most contentious confirmation battle for a Cabinet nominee since 1989, when former Sen. John Tower was defeated as President George Bush's choice for defense secretary.

Democrats urged on by a liberal coalition of big labor, feminist groups and civil rights organizations claimed that Mr. Ashcroft is biased against blacks and homosexuals. They questioned whether he would enforce vigorously abortion laws and gun regulations that he opposed as a senator from Missouri.

"He was wrong on civil rights, he was wrong on a woman's right to choose, wrong on needed steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat whose brother, Robert, led Justice 40 years ago. "He's wrong on many other issues, and it is wrong to send him to be the attorney general of the United States."

After losing the six-week-long effort, Democrats yesterday portrayed their 42 votes in opposition as a warning to Mr. Bush that they will reject conservative judicial appointments.

"It's a shot across the bow in terms of Supreme Court nominations," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. "It's a shot across the bow in terms of the Justice Department and how it conducts itself."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said it was the most votes ever against an attorney general who was confirmed.

A Republican leadership aide said Democrats are quick to use the label "bipartisan" when they gain a few Republican votes for Democrat-sponsored legislation.

"But when it's Ashcroft and we get eight Democrats, it's a 'bitterly partisan vote,' " the aide said.

Traditionally, with few exceptions, Cabinet nominees receive overwhelming Senate approval.

Republicans said some Democrats voted against Mr. Ashcroft, not because they feared his tenure at Justice, but because they feared retribution by liberal interest groups in the 2002 elections.

"I was told by a number of [Democrats] they were very much afraid of the retaliation," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican. "I think that was a chilling factor."

For example, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had warned that his group would target senators who voted for Mr. Ashcroft.

Mr. Ashcroft, the son of an Assemblies of God minister who does not drink, dance or smoke, was criticized for advocating a pro-life agenda as a senator. Some of Mr. Ashcroft's closest friends in the Senate said he is determined to disregard the attacks on his Christian values.

"Never has that faith been tested more," Mr. Bond said. "He maintained his composure. John's spirits never flagged."

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Ashcroft "is looking forward to the opportunity of proving himself."

Mr. Kyl said that when he suggested to Mr. Ashcroft that a particularly nasty accusation by Democrats would be hard to forget, Mr. Ashcroft replied, "I'm determined not to remember that."

"His faith has helped him come to that conclusion," Mr. Kyl said.

Before the vote, Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, said the campaign against Mr. Ashcroft made him wonder "if there's not an effort to make the love of traditional values a hate crime in America."

"The plain truth is, we may have 'In God We Trust' on our coins, but we do not have it in our heart," Mr. Gramm said.

Added Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, "So 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone' and there's plenty of sinning around here in the way they're treating our colleague."

Forty-two votes by Democrats would have been enough to sustain a filibuster, or procedural delay, to block Mr. Ashcroft's nomination. Mr. Schumer said that although 42 Democrats voted against Mr. Ashcroft, fewer senators supported a filibuster, believing that the president deserved an up-or-down vote on his nominee.

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