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Confirmation Update: John Ashcroft and Gale Norton

Kwame Holman reports on the confirmation hearings of John Ashcroft and Gale Norton.

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    As members of the Senate Judiciary Committee gathered for an executive meeting this morning, there was little doubt among them that John Ashcroft had the votes, both in committee and in the full Senate, to be confirmed as Attorney General. For instance, it would take at least one Republican joining all 50 Democrats to defeat him, and no Republican has indicated any opposition, while a handful of Democrats already has pledged support. Still, Ashcroft won't become Attorney General until they vote.


    Good morning. How are you?


    Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch had planned on holding the committee vote on Ashcroft this morning, moving the nomination to the full Senate. But late yesterday, the Committee's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy, as he has the right to do, declared the Committee vote would be put off for a week. Leahy and other Democrats said Ashcroft's responses to their questions raised more questions.


    We did try to move forward. In retrospect, maybe we should have had the nominee back for a further round of questions. I have no intention of trying to unnecessarily delay this.


    Chairman Hatch said he appreciated Leahy's giving him advance notice of his intention to put a hold on the nomination.


    Having said that, I am extremely disappointed that for the first time I remember, since at least as far back as the Carter presidency, the President's choice for Attorney General is being held over by this Committee. We had three and a half days of hearings last week, with numerous opposition witnesses testifying, a major departure from the way we handled the nomination of Janet Reno. On Friday, more than 150 questions, with numerous sub- questions, were submitted to the nominee. This included questions concerning what the nominee may have said to other Republican Senators during our policy lunches, as well as what he may have said to our majority leader or assistant majority leader regarding consultations on scheduling a vote on nominations. Now, this represents, in my opinion, a dangerous and unprecedented intrusion into Senatorial deliberation– at least, that's what I believe. Two days ago, on Monday, Senator Ashcroft was sent a second round of questions totaling well over 150. Now, I have trouble counting that high, as you all know, but I think the total is well over 400 questions, including sub- questions, to a nominee who testified exhaustively before the Committee for two days. Now, certainly members are entitled to ask follow-up questions to a nominee, but this seems going to the extreme.


    Senator Edward Kennedy, who leads the opposition to Ashcroft on the committee, disagreed with the chairman.


    This is an extremely controversial nominee, and as I found, quite frankly, in response to the questions that in many instances the nominee was deleterious in answering the questions, filling out time, not being responsive. And I think we have a real responsibility, not only to this Committee and to the Senate, but most of all, the American people, to be able to get to have full and complete responses to these questions. I think the action that's being suggested now by Senator Leahy is a responsible action and can ensure the most complete record.


    California Democrat Dianne Feinstein spoke up to announce that when the Committee does vote, she will vote against Ashcroft's nomination.


    Taken as a whole, Senator Ashcroft's positions and statements, in my view, do not unite America; rather, they divide America. They send strong signals to the dispossessed, the racial minorities of our country, and particularly to all women who have fought long and hard for reproductive freedom, that this Attorney General will not be supportive of the laws for which they fought, no matter what he said in the past weeks.


    Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions spoke after the meeting adjourned.


    What is your reaction to today's events delaying a week and Senator Feinstein's statement?


    I think we knew that was probably going to happen. Every Senator can delay a vote for one week, and the republic is not going to fall for that. So I think we can certainly live with that, but I'm, continue to be troubled by the positions that I, have been characterized as extreme that are not extreme. If we give him a fair chance and listen to what he said at the hearing, more, even more Senators will continue to support his nomination as is happening now.


    Meanwhile, President Bush's other nominee who was expected to draw strong opposition, Gale Norton as Interior Secretary, actually breezed through her confirmation hearings. Today, Norton was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by an 18-2 vote.


    The Committee questioned her extensively. I questioned her. I do believe she answered a great many questions, both here orally and for the record. She assured the Committee that she is a "passionate conservationist." That was her phrase. She told us of her commitment to great wild places, unspoiled landscapes. She also repeated her commitment to enforce the various laws that she would have responsibility for – Surface Mining Act, NEPA, the Endangered Species Act – to enforce them as written and as interpreted by the courts. And she assured us of her commitment to our parks and our monuments and the other assets that will be under her jurisdiction. She also acknowledged her responsibility to the Native Americans, and promised to improve Indian education. Mr. Chairman, I take her at her word.


    The full Senate's vote on Gale Norton is expected next week.

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