Friday, February 4, 2005

The Senate confirmed Alberto Gonzales yesterday as the new attorney general, despite considerable opposition from Democrats.

Just six Democrats crossed the aisle to join Republicans in the 60-36 vote that came late yesterday after several days of acerbic debate over Mr. Gonzales’ tenure as chief White House counsel. He is the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney General.

“His life story is inspiring and another shining example of how the American dream can be reality for all who are willing to work for it,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “But more importantly, I’m pleased by today’s confirmation because Judge Gonzales is the right man for the job.”

Vice President Dick Cheney swore in Mr. Gonzales as the nation’s 80th attorney general in a private White House ceremony last night. President Bush congratulated Mr. Gonzales by phone from a trip to North Dakota and Montana.

Mr. Gonzales is the grandson of Mexican migrant workers and served as general counsel to Mr. Bush when he was governor of Texas. Mr. Bush later appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court and tapped him as his chief White House counsel after Mr. Bush was elected president.

For the most part, the Senate debate centered on torture, which some Democrats say the Bush administration has condoned — even encouraged — under the legal guidance of Mr. Gonzales.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Mr. Gonzales’ background is nothing short of inspiring.

“But this debate is not about Mr. Gonzales’ life story,” he said. “This debate is about whether, in the age of terrorism, America will continue to be a nation based on the rule of law or whether we — out of fear — abandon time-tested values.

“Our conduct has been called into question around the world,” Mr. Durbin said. “Our moral standing has been challenged. And now, we are being asked to promote a man who was at the center of the debate over secretive policies that created an environment that led to Abu Ghraib.”

Republicans say Mr. Gonzales can’t be blamed for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. For instance, they say, he didn’t write the primary memo cited by Democrats as giving the green light to torture.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it has been “a long month” for Mr. Gonzales.

“What is striking to me is how little there has been about the 49 years of this man’s life, contrasted with a few memos where the contents have been grossly distorted,” he said just before the vote yesterday. “This is a man who has an extraordinary record, but it hasn’t been the subject of analysis or discussion here today.”

The debate became quite personal at times.

Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, yesterday read passages from a memoir by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, who suffered brutal torture at the hands of North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” he read from “Faith of My Fathers,” Mr. McCain’s account of his more than five years in captivity. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment. Having no one else to rely on to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your judgment and your courage.”

After reading the passage, Mr. Reid said: “For John McCain and all our soldiers serving across the globe, we need to stand against torture because of what it does to us as a country and what it does to the future servicemen of our country.”

Like all the Republicans, Mr. McCain voted to confirm Mr. Gonzales.

Earlier this week, Mr. Gonzales’ confirmation became assured when Democrats agreed to allow a vote without filibustering. Still, intense wrangling continued in the Senate until the final moments of the vote.

During the vote, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, appeared deeply torn about her decision as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and others opposed to Mr. Gonzales’ nomination lobbied for her vote.

After some consultation, Mrs. Lincoln walked up to the elevated marble dais where the clerk sits and tallies votes. She leaned in closely, gave a sideways thumb signal and squinched her face as if hoping for advice from the clerk. Finally, she gave a quick thumbs-down and darted away from the clerk.

When she got within reach of Mr. Schumer, he embraced her.

During the debate leading up to the vote, Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican and one of the Senate’s two Hispanics, made his inaugural speech on the floor of the Senate in favor of Mr. Gonzales.

At one point, he broke into Spanish and spoke directly to the fast-growing population of Hispanic-Americans.

“Judge Gonzales is one of us,” he said, first in his native language and then in English. “He represents all of our hopes and dreams for our children and for all of us as Hispanic Americans.

“Let us acknowledge the importance of this moment, especially for our young people,” he continued. “We cannot allow petty politicking to deny this moment that fills all with such pride.”

Throughout the weeks of intense debate over the nomination, Republicans never tired of pointing out Mr. Gonzales’ ethnic heritage. Some hinted pointedly that Hispanic voters may not forget a vote against Mr. Gonzales.

Sen. Ken Salazar, a newly elected Democrat from Colorado and the body’s other Hispanic member, crossed party lines to support Mr. Gonzales. But before doing so, he admonished Republicans for trying to use the issue of Mr. Gonzales’ nomination as a wedge to divide Democratic lawmakers from Hispanic voters.

“Let us not use this moment to divide this country, and let’s not use this moment to divide this chamber,” Mr. Salazar said.

“My view is that those Democratic colleagues of mine — who are people that I admire — are very much champions of diversity and champions of civil rights, and in my view they were exercising their appropriate role and their duty to make sure that the scrutiny of the United States Senate of one of the president’s nominees was in fact exercised.”

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