- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft yesterday told senators he will enforce "all of the law for all of the people" as he offered a calm defense of his Christian values before a split, partisan Judiciary Committee.
"As a man of faith, I take my word and my integrity seriously," Mr. Ashcroft testified on the opening day of his confirmation hearing. "When I swear to uphold the law, I will keep my oath, so help me God."
The pro-life former senator, who is President-elect George W. Bush's choice to lead the Justice Department, gave detailed examples of instances in which he enforced abortion laws as attorney general and governor of Missouri despite his philosophical opposition to those laws.
"I am personally opposed to abortion," Mr. Ashcroft said. "But … I well understand the role of the attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it."
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said Mr. Ashcroft's "heart is not in some of the most important of the nation's laws." He lashed out at the nominee for what he called his "relentless opposition" to desegregation, then grew impatient with Mr. Ashcroft's explanation.
The exchange prompted Mr. Ashcroft to calmly state: "It just takes a lot more time to answer these charges then it does to make them."
All committee Republicans on the evenly divided panel voiced support for Mr. Ashcroft; most Democrats expressed opposition, or at least reservations. But Mr. Ashcroft did appear to receive some support from Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who said ideology ought not to be the deciding factor for a Cabinet post.
"Voting records and conservative ideology are not a sufficient basis to reject a Cabinet nominee, even for attorney general," Mr. Feingold said. "Being in the middle of the road is not a requirement."
That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican, who reminded colleagues of his support for Attorney General Janet Reno despite her opposition to the death penalty.
"If I can vote for Janet Reno, you can vote for John Ashcroft," Mr. Smith told committee Democrats.
Mr. Ashcroft also was introduced to the committee by the Democrat who took his Senate seat, Jean Carnahan. She was appointed after her husband, Mel, died in a plane crash during the fall campaign and was elected posthumously.
Mrs. Carnahan asked the committee, of which Mr. Ashcroft was a member last year, to show him "fairness, but not favoritism, to welcome all the facts without fear, and to base your decision on principle and not partisanship."
"I ask you to look beyond any history of friendship or disputes, to look beyond the bonds or divisions of party, and to look beyond the urging of interest groups," she told the committee. "Instead, let us base our decision on the facts as they are determined by a full and fair hearing," she said.
The Ashcroft hearing is expected to last several days and is viewed as the most severe early test of Mr. Bush's strength with the new Congress. The Senate is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
Senate Democrats are under enormous pressure from liberal interest groups to defeat Mr. Ashcroft, whom they accuse of insensitivity to minorities and of harboring a stealth agenda to undermine abortion rights.
Yesterday, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said his organization will "fund major information campaigns for the next four years" in states whose senators vote in favor of Mr. Ashcroft.
"Senators who vote for Ashcroft will not be able to run away from this and assume people will forget," said Mr. Mfume. "For Democratic senators, in particular, this vote comes as close to a litmus test as one can get on the issue of civil rights and equal justice under law from the party's most loyal constituency."
Against that backdrop, temporary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, yesterday labeled Mr. Ashcroft "unyielding" and "activist."
Committee Republicans refuted that talk yesterday as no more than Democrats pandering to their base of big labor, feminist groups, homosexual rights organizations and the gun-control lobby.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, criticized "the mob of extremists who have hit the airwaves and are trying to intimidate" Democrats to vote against Mr. Ashcroft.
"I hope that my colleagues on the other side have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to these extremist accusations," Mr. Grassley said. "If John Ashcroft is so bad, why did the people of Missouri elect him to be Missouri's attorney general, governor and senator?"
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican who also introduced the nominee, said the smear campaign "has nothing to do with John Ashcroft's ability to be a great attorney general."
"It is all about advancing the activists' agenda," Mr. Bond said. "By targeting and setting out systematically to smear John Ashcroft, they seek to rally their own troops, raise money and secure publicity."
Mr. Bond said some of Mr. Ashcroft's opponents are engaging in religious bigotry by criticizing his deeply held religious views.
"Some activists who claim to embrace and promote religious diversity and tolerance seem unable to extend their beliefs to a conservative Christian," Mr. Bond testified. "I thought we broke down that barrier when John F. Kennedy became president, and we saw that he did not put his Catholic beliefs above the law of the land. And what of our colleague [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [Connecticut Democrat], whose candidacy for vice president and his public religious utterances tore down even more barriers? Mr. Lieberman is the first Jew to run for the White House on a major-party ticket.
Mr. Ashcroft's tone with the committee yesterday was placid and noncombative, despite several attempts by Democrats seemingly to provoke him. Mr. Kennedy asked him to justify his "relentless opposition" to court-ordered school desegregation in St. Louis while he was governor.
"What about the interests of those black students?" Mr. Kennedy said, his voice rising.
Mr. Ashcroft said he followed every court order but believes the state paid too steep a price hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the nation's longest-running integration lawsuits and that schools did not improve for black students because the best students fled the city.
The nominee also defended his rejection in the Senate of Ronnie White, a black judge who was President Clinton's nominee in 1999 for a seat on the federal bench in Missouri. Mr. White will testify at the hearing later this week.
"My opposition to Judge Ronnie White was well-founded," Mr. Ashcroft said. "My legal review revealed a troubling pattern of his willingness to modify settled law in criminal cases."
Mr. Ashcroft said he issued an attorney general's opinion in 1979 in Missouri that warned school boards not to allow Bibles to be distributed on school grounds. He said that contrary to the demands of pro-life groups, he directed the state government in 1981 to maintain the confidentiality of abortion records.
In 1980, despite his opposition to racial quotas, Mr. Ashcroft said he issued an opinion that allowed the Missouri Clean Water Commission to award a 15 percent state grant to the St. Louis Sewer District to establish a minority business enterprise program because it conformed with state law.


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