Jonathan Karl: Bush nominees face flak on Capitol Hill
CNN's Jonathan Karl is reporting from Capitol Hill on the nominations of John Ashcroft for attorney general and Gale Norton for interior secretary in the incoming Bush administration.
Q: How are pledges of bipartisanship holding up under criticism of these nominees and the withdrawal earlier this week of Linda Chavez, the nominee for labor secretary?
KARL: This is not a very bipartisan time on Capitol Hill. The Ashcroft nomination by all indications is going to be bruising and politically divisive ... Clearly, the Congress is not getting started off here on a very bipartisan note.
It may not get very much better once Bush is sworn in, because all indications are that we have two major battles coming up -- one over tax cuts and one over campaign finance reform. That said, it is a 50-50 Senate. The margin is very close in the House of Representatives as well. There is a sense among many moderates in both parties that if they don't cool down the partisanship, at least for a while, that nobody's going to get anything done.
Q: The consensus has been that these nominees will take some flak but would survive the Senate. Is that still the consensus?
KARL: Yes, but both Ashcroft and Norton are taking more flak than Republicans had anticipated. This is shaping up to be more of a partisan bloodbath than they had thought it would be, especially on the Ashcroft side.
Q: What are Norton's chances in the Senate compared to Ashcroft's?
KARL: The feeling among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill is that Norton is in a stronger position than Ashcroft. Most of the real strong Democratic firepower is aimed not at Norton but at Ashcroft, and she is expected to win confirmation rather easily -- although the coalition of environmental groups that showed up today to announce a campaign against her nomination was a pretty impressive coalition.
Q: How did Ashcroft's Friday appearance on Capitol Hill go?
KARL: Ashcroft was on Capitol Hill today paying courtesy calls on the senators that will be here for his (confirmation) hearing, including Charles Schumer, a liberal New York Democrat. The meeting lasted for more than an hour, which is just a long time for one of these courtesy calls. And afterwards, Schumer came to the microphone and said he will support the overwhelming majority of George W. Bush's nominees -- but Ashcroft is far more conservative and is in line for a far more sensitive position than the others, so this one is potentially troubling. He didn't say that he wasn't going to support Ashcroft, but after the meeting went for more than an hour, it was interesting to see him speak so strongly.
Q: Did any other senators offer any indication of their feelings after these meetings?
KARL: What we're seeing is that the moderate Republicans that Ashcroft's critics would really need to convert are pretty much lockstep saying they are behind John Ashcroft. What this means in the end is that barring something unforeseen, you're liable to see a lot of smoke -- a lot of strong words. You'll see Ashcroft take a lot of tough questions, but in the end, the thinking is he will be confirmed.