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Ashcroft confirmed: 42 Democrats vote against him

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With no pomp and little ceremony, John Ashcroft was sworn in as the nation's attorney general yesterday, winning Senate confirmation by a 58-to-42 margin after two days of scorching partisan debate over his fitness for the job.

All 50 Republicans voted in favor of Ashcroft, many of them saying they were angry about the harsh rhetoric that Democrats and interest groups had used against him. Eight Democrats also voted in favor.

Ashcroft, succeeding Janet Reno, took the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with no TV cameras present. Thomas also had a tough confirmation fight when he was nominated to the court by President Bush's father. Thomas and Ashcroft are friends of long standing.

Bush said only that he was pleased to have his entire Cabinet confirmed and ready for business.

Ashcroft said he was eager to get to work. In a statement he also said he would "confront injustice by leading a professional Justice Department that is free from politics, that is uncompromisingly fair."

He will supervise 125,000 lawyers, a budget of $20 billion and is the "people's lawyer" on such thorny issues as affirmative action, access to abortion clinics, immigration, the federal death penalty, antitrust cases such as the one against Microsoft and mergers such as the one pending between US Airways and United Airlines.

A two-term Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft also served two terms as the state's governor before being elected in 1994 to the U.S. Senate, where he soon became known as one of its most conservative members.

Ashcroft lost his Senate seat last November to his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, who had died in a plane crash during the campaign. Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his stead.

The Democrats who voted for Ashcroft's confirmation were Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

But many others of their party painted Ashcroft as outside the mainstream of American thought in his views on civil rights, abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. In a news conference after the vote, opposing senators said they hoped that Bush would learn that if he seeks to fill any Supreme Court vacancies with nominees who are similarly conservative, the 42 votes cast against Ashcroft would signal an even more bruising fight. That number of votes is sufficient to sustain a filibuster that could prevent a confirmation vote.

Democrats who voted against Ashcroft said they were especially upset that while he was a senator, he led the fights against confirming a gay man to be ambassador to Luxembourg and a black judge to sit on the federal bench.

It was Ashcroft's campaign against that judge, RonnieWhite of Missouri, that was cited most frequently by his Democratic opponents. Ashcroft branded White as "pro-criminal" for several of his decisions, and White failed to get the federal judgeship on a party line vote. He testified during last month's Senate confirmation hearings that Ashcroft had distorted his record.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose panel recommended Ashcroft to the full Senate by a narrow 10-8 vote, was livid over the Democrats' criticisms, raging against what he called "intemperate vitriol." He accused Democrats of wanting a society where abortion rights and support for gun control were the litmus tests to be attorney general.

A main point of dispute between the two parties was whether the debate focused on Ashcroft's Pentecostal beliefs. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat, who led the fight against Ashcroft, said religion had nothing to do with his decision that Ashcroft was not fit for the job. But Hatch maintained that Ashcroft's religious opposition to abortion and gay rights was at the core of his opponents' attacks.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said he had no doubt that Ashcroft was a man of "the highest level of principle and integrity."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who also voted for Ashcroft despite his support for abortion rights, immediately became the target of an ad by the National Abortion Rights Action League, urging that constituents call his office to tell him he "made the wrong choice."

Ashcroft drew more votes to defeat his nomination than any other attorney general candidate since 1925, when Charles B. Warren was rejected 46-39 as attorney general under Calvin Coolidge. In 1985, Edwin Meese III, who had also been controversial when Ronald Reagan nominated him as attorney general, was confirmed on a 63-31 vote.

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