KWAME HOLMAN: Activists for and against the confirmation of John Ashcroft lined the hallways outside the Senate Judiciary hearing room early today. Just after noon, the nominee himself, escorted by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, strode past them and into what's expected to be the most contentious of all the cabinet confirmation hearings in more than a decade. Inside the hearing room, Ashcroft was welcomed warmly by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee on which he served until this month. He was so at home, he even greeted staff members. But some Democrats have expressed concerns about some of Ashcroft's conservative views. The committee's temporary chairman, Democrat Patrick Leahy, gaveled the hearing into session, and shortly thereafter set the tone.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: We all look to the Attorney General to ensure even-handed law enforcement and protection of our basic constitutional rights -- including the freedom of speech, the right to privacy, a woman's right to choose, freedom from government oppression and equal protection of all our laws. The Attorney General plays a critical role in bringing the country together and bridging racial divisions and inspiring people's confidence in their government. Senator Ashcroft has often taken aggressively activist positions on a number of issues that deeply divide the American people. He had a right to take these activists positions, but we also have a duty to evaluate how these positions would affect his conduct as Attorney General. Many of these issues on battles over Executive Branch or Judicial nominees, Senator Ashcroft was not just in a minority in the United States Senate but in a minority among Republicans in the Senate. We have to ask if somebody who has been that unyielding in a policy outlook can unite all Americans, and that's an important question for the Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Ashcroft has built a career in public service. He first was elected Missouri's Attorney General in 1976, and served two terms. He was elected to the first of two terms as Missouri Governor in 1984. And ten years later, Ashcroft was elected to the United States Senate, succeeding the retiring John Danforth. Last November, however, Ashcroft failed in his reelection bid, losing to Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash three weeks before the election. Carnahan's wife, Jean, was appointed to fill the seat. Three weeks ago, President-elect Bush asked Ashcroft to join his administration as Attorney General. The Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Orrin Hatch, praised Ashcroft's nomination.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: During John Ashcroft's 30- year service for the public, he has worked to establish a number of things to keep Americans safe and free from criminal activities: Tougher sentencing laws for serious crimes; keeping drugs out of the hands of children; improving our nation's immigration laws; protecting citizens from fraud; protecting competition in business. He has supported funding increases for law enforcement. He held the first hearings ever on the issue of racial profiling. And he's been a leader for victims' rights in courts of law and otherwise. He helped to enact the Violence Against Women Bill; provisions making violence at abortion clinics fines non-dischargeable in bankruptcy; authored anti- stalking laws; fought to allow women accused of homicide to have the privilege of presenting battered spouse syndrome evidence in the courts of law. As Governor, he commuted the sentences of two women who did not have that privilege. He signed Missouri's hate crimes bill into law. I could go on and on. His record is distinguished.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hatch then turned his remarks toward his committee colleagues.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: In keeping with our promise to work in a bipartisan fashion, I ask that we begin with a rejection of the politics of division. If we want to encourage the most qualified citizens to serve in government, we must do everything we can to stop what has been termed the politics of personal destruction. This is not to say that we should put an end to an open and candid debate on policy issues. Quite the contrary: Our system of government is designed to promote the expression of these differences, and our Constitution protects it. But the fact is that all of us, both Democrats and Republicans, know the difference between legitimate policy debate and unwarranted personal attacks promoted and sometimes urged by narrow special interest groups.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy followed, and made clear his concerns with Ashcroft were based on the nominee's actions during his long political career.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: The vast majority of Americans support vigorous enforcement of our civil rights laws, and those laws and the Constitution demand it. Senator Ashcroft, however, spent significant parts of his term as Attorney General of Missouri, and his term as Governor, strongly opposing school desegregation and voter registration in St. Louis. The vast majority of Americans believe in access to contraception and a woman's right to choose, and our laws and Constitution demand it. Senator Ashcroft does not, and his intense efforts have made him one of the principal architects of the ongoing right- wing strategy to dismantle "Roe V. Wade" and abolish a woman's right to choose. Deep concerns have been raised about his record on gun control. He has called James Brady the "leading enemy of responsible gun owners." Senator Ashcroft is so far out of the mainstream that he has said that citizens need to be armed in order to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. Our government? Tyrannical? As these few examples demonstrate, the clear question before the Senate is whether, if confirmed as Attorney General, Senator Ashcroft will be capable of fully and fairly enforcing the nation's laws to benefit all Americans. Even though he profoundly disagrees with many of the most important of those laws, his past actions strongly suggest that he will not.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Arlen Specter foreshadowed a tough road ahead for Ashcroft.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: There is no doubt that if it becomes a partisan issue, that this nomination can be blocked by a refusal to cut off debate. And feelings are running very, very high; lots of calls on both sides, great intensity. I haven't seen this much intensity for more than a decade. And if the passions run high enough and partisanship takes over, it will not be in the interest of the American people.
KWAME HOLMAN: It is customary for Senators from a nominee's home state, no matter Democrat or Republican, to introduce the nominee to the presiding committee. That put Jean Carnahan in an awkward position. She, in effect, defeated Ashcroft in the November election. Today, she sat next to him, but Carnahan appeared to choose her words carefully, neither endorsing nor opposing Ashcroft's confirmation.
SEN. JEAN CARNAHAN: I urge you 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 and to look beyond the bonds or divisions of party and to look beyond the urging of interest groups expressing either support or opposition to this nomination. Instead, let us base our decision on the facts as they are determined by a full and fair hearing. I believe that is how we can best serve the interest of the people of America.
KWAME HOLMAN: Finally, two hours after the hearing began, after each committee member spoke, it was John Ashcroft's turn to speak. His remarks were addressed mostly to the concerns of his opponents.
JOHN ASHCROFT: The Attorney General must recognize this: The language of justice is not the reality of justice for all Americans. From racial profiling to news of unwarranted strip searches, the list of injustice in America today is still long. Injustice in America against any individual must not stand. This is the special charge of the U.S. Department of Justice. No American should be turned away from a polling place because of the color of her skin or the sound of his name. No American should be denied access to public accommodations or a job as a result of a disability. No American family should be prevented from realizing the dream of homeownership in the neighborhood of their choice just because of skin color. No American should have the door to employment or educational opportunity slammed shut because of gender or race. No American should fear being stopped by police just because of skin color. And no woman should fear being threatened or coerced in seeking constitutionally protected health services. I pledge to you that if I'm confirmed as Attorney General, the Justice Department will meet its special charge. Injustice against individuals will not stand -- no ifs, ands or buts, period.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ashcroft directly took on two particular concerns cited by his critics.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Some have suggested that my opposition to the appointment of Judge Ronnie White, an African-American Missouri Supreme Court judge, to a lifetime term on the federal bench was based on something other than my own honest assessment of his qualifications for the post. Studying his judicial record, considering the implications of his decisions and hearing the widespread objections to his appointment from a large body of my constituents, I simply came to the overwhelming conclusion that Judge White should not be given lifetime tenure as a U.S. District Court judge. My legal review revealed the troubling pattern of his willingness to modify settled law in criminal cases. 53 of my colleagues reached the same conclusion. Another issue merits specific mention in these opening remarks, and that is the issue that we would identify with the case of Roe Versus Wade, which established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. If confirmed as Attorney General, I will follow the law in this area and in all other areas. The Supreme Court's decisions on this have been multiple. They have been recent, and they have been emphatic.
KWAME HOLMAN: There was limited time for questioning on this first day. Chairman Leahy asked about Ashcroft's fight about court- ordered desegregation for St. Louis schools while he was Attorney General.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The state had been sued. I argued on behalf of the State of Missouri that it could not be found legally liable for segregation in St. Louis schools because the state had never been a party to the litigation. Now, one of the responsibilities of an Attorney General, in my judgment, is that when the entity which you represent legally is attacked or sued, you should defend it. Now, to me, I just want to try and make it clear, it's been mentioned on several occasions and I just think I want to have the opportunity to say with clarity that I do not support segregation. I support integration.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Committee's questioning of John Ashcroft will continue tomorrow.