Democrats unanimously voted against the nomination of Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, but said they had no plans to filibuster him on the Senate floor.
Mr. Gonzales, who will become the first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed by the full Senate, was accused by Democrats of setting administration policy that permitted torture. Democrats also said Mr. Gonzales was blindly loyal to President Bush and stonewalled questions during his confirmation hearing.
Mr. Gonzales initially appeared likely to gain support from several Democrats on the committee, including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Charles E. Schumer of New York. But during the course of the hearing, Mr. Schumer said, he lost confidence that the White House chief counsel would make a good attorney general, resulting in the partisan 10-8 committee vote.
“He was so circumspect in his answers, so unwilling to leave a micron of space between his views and the president’s, that I now have real doubts whether he can perform the job of attorney general,” Mr. Schumer said.
Meanwhile yesterday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus broke with such Hispanic groups as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza by urging senators to vote against confirming Mr. Gonzales.
Both Hispanics in the Senate, Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, and Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, are expected to vote to confirm Mr. Gonzales.
Still, Mr. Schumer and other Democrats on the panel acknowledged that Mr. Gonzales likely will be confirmed.
The focus of Democratic concern has been the so-called “torture memo,” in which Bush administration attorney Jay Bybee laid out his legal opinions about the definition of “torture.” The memo was sent to Mr. Gonzales.
“The Bybee memorandum defined torture so narrowly that Saddam Hussein’s henchmen could have claimed immunity from prosecution for many of their crimes,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
Of particular concern to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, was the loss of credibility for Americans in correcting the recently discovered abuses by Iraqi officials.
“What do American officials say with a straight face to Iraqi security forces who are responsible for these acts?” he wondered. “Use more humane handcuffs when hanging someone from the ceiling? Please make sure organ failure doesn’t result from any of these practices?”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said Mr. Leahy “differs widely with the administration but he lays all of the blame for his differences on Judge Gonzales.”
He said blaming Mr. Gonzales for the memo was unfair.
“This memo was not written by Judge Gonzales,” Mr. Hatch said. “It was written by individuals at the Department of Justice. Whether you agree or disagree with it, that’s a fact.”
Democrats also accused Mr. Gonzales of stonewalling senators during and after his confirmation hearing.
“In his responses to my written questions, Mr. Gonzales stated eight times that he has not ‘conducted a search’ for the requested documents,” Mr. Kennedy said. “In other words, the documents we want may exist, but he’s not going to look for them. It’s hard to imagine a more arrogant insult to this committee’s oversight role.”
Several Democrats expressed concern that Mr. Gonzales, who served as general counsel to Mr. Bush when he was governor of Texas, will have a hard time producing the independent legal advice expected of an attorney general.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, called Mr. Gonzales a “legal enabler to the president.”
Mr. Schumer said he doubts that Mr. Gonzales can remain as independent as the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, who served as attorney general under his brother.
“It’s hard to be a straight shooter when you’re a blind loyalist,” Mr. Schumer said.