- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Some key Democratic senators have resigned themselves to the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general but hope to use the hearings to make a statement about his record and to air complaints from the civil rights community.

"I think his chances of confirmation are pretty good," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. "It will be hard for me to see how he would not be confirmed. I think his chances are good."

Two other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will handle the first stage of his confirmation hearings, were sounding similar notes yesterday.

Said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat: "I certainly assume I will be voting for him, but I will be asking him some good tough questions." Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, said he will vote in favor of Mr. Ashcroft.

Other Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee say they will keep an open mind during the hearings before deciding how they will vote.

While Mr. Ashcroft is expected to be confirmed, Republicans and Democrats say there will be a contentious hearing, but no cliffhanger vote.

"He clearly will be questioned sharply for a period of time, but I don't think he is in any jeopardy," Mr. Torricelli said.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and ranking member of the committee, agreed.

"I think we will have interesting hearings, like they always are. There will be a lot of tough questions, but that's par for the course," Mr. Hatch said.

No hearing date has been set, but with Democrats in control of the Senate for 17 days, Democrats could possibly be in charge of Mr. Ashcroft's hearing with ranking member Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont acting as chairman.

The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Al Gore breaking all ties until George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney are sworn in Jan. 20 as president and vice president, respectively.

Asked about the strength of support Mr. Ashcroft has from Democrats, Mr. Feingold said "those of us who have worked with him closely have found it to be a good experience."

"The president-elect is not usually denied an attorney general based on his philosophy if the person is competent and of high integrity," Mr. Torricelli said.

The former senator from Missouri is being criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other black activists who have called on Democratic senators to block Mr. Ashcroft's approval, saying his record on civil rights is weak.

"Those who are with the civil rights agenda must not choose collegiality over civil rights and social justice," Mr. Jackson said.

Democrats say civil rights over civility just won't work in the Senate, where members have to get along and where the tradition is to confirm former members.

Mr. Hatch added that Mr. Ashcroft will stand on his integrity rather than on being one of the club.

"Collegiality only goes so far; character counts for everything around here and he is a man of great character," Mr. Hatch said.

Other Democrats continued expressing disappointment that Mr. Ashcroft was nominated in the first place.

"This is a position where someone a little less controversial should have been put in," said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "Having just come off the campaign like that, it's probably not the best time either."

Mr. Ashcroft is pro-life, drawing opposition from pro-choice supporters, and raised the ire of blacks when he voted against naming Ronnie White, a black Missouri Supreme Court judge, to the federal bench.

Mr. Ashcroft's supporters say Mr. White's nomination was torpedoed because he is soft on the death penalty and they point to Mr. Ashcroft's votes in favor of 23 of 26 black judge nominees during his Senate tenure.

"Are we going to have a litmus test that if you believe Roe versus Wade was an unsound decision legally that you can't be the attorney general of the United States?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. "I don't think that will disqualify John Ashcroft."

Mr. Sessions and Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said the race charges are invalid, accusing Mr. Jackson of playing the "race card" without merit.

"I think this is a continuous attempt to try and politicize the African-American community," Mr. Santorum said. "It's an unfortunate situation, and the way we overcome that is to go out and talk about substantive issues that makes a difference in people's lives."

Mr. Sessions said Mr. Ashcroft will bring needed change to the Justice Department.

"He is the exact antidote to the spin mentality that I think has infected the Department of Justice," Mr. Sessions said.

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