Jonathan Karl: Ashcroft hearing first ideological battle of Bush presidency
CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl is reporting from Capitol Hill on the confirmation hearing of attorney general nominee John Ashcroft.
Q: Can you characterize winners or losers at this point? What's the score?
KARL: Arlen Specter said in his opening statement that the battle lines are clearly drawn, and with the first statements clearly there were no surprises: The Democrats are resolved to launch an assault on John Ashcroft, and the Republicans are resolved to defend him.
After an emotional and highly charged day, in reality not much has changed. Ashcroft seems poised to be confirmed as the attorney general -- he has more than enough votes on the committee. But there are still three days of hearings to go ... he's not out of the woods yet.
Q: Are the senators on the committee hearing anything that they haven't heard? Are their minds already made up? Can they be changed?
KARL: There seem to be a couple of Democrats who have made up their mind that they don't like what Ashcroft stands for. There are others -- Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Maria Cantwell of Washington -- who say they believe a president deserves wide latitude in choosing his Cabinet but have expressed strong disagreement with Ashcroft's political views. These senators both said (Cantwell's statement was written since she wasn't on hand) that they could vote for Ashcroft if they felt convinced that he would effectively enforce the law, even if he disagrees with it on such hot-button issues as abortion, gun control and civil rights.
Q: Surely Ashcroft knows that. Who else is he seeking confirmation from?
KARL: Since the day he was nominated, he has been aggressively working members of the Senate on a one-to-one basis in an effort to persuade them to support his nomination. A good part of what he was doing in this first day was continuing the process of sending a message to persuade Democrats that even though they might disagree they should support his nomination.
All that matters is getting the votes -- not just by a razor-thin margin, but with the support of several Democrats.
That being said, there's clearly another battle being fought here, and that is energizing the bases of both parties -- this is the first great ideological showdown of the Bush presidency. This is the spring training before further battles on other nominations, on issues, possibly Supreme Court nominations.
So Ashcroft is clearly speaking to that larger audience -- the Republican Party base.
Q: Sen. Jean Carnahan, whose husband defeated Ashcroft for a seat in the Senate last November after he was killed in a plane crash and who was appointed to replace him, introduced Ashcroft to the Senate panel. Can you describe that moment?
KARL: The personal dynamics there were fascinating. Jean Carnahan did not show up until just before she was to introduce John Ashcroft. In contrast, the other two senators who were introducing Ashcroft -- Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas -- sat with him during all the introductions.
When Jean Carnahan came in, she sat right next to John Ashcroft, who was a bitter rival or her husband. That rivalry continues even after Mel Carnahan was killed -- Ashcroft's allies have complained that Mel Carnahan's former campaign manager has helped interest groups opposing Ashcroft with opposition research.
So here you have John Ashcroft being introduced by the wife of his longtime political enemy, who is making it simply out of tradition as him being from her home state.
But she was very gracious, very friendly. And she has made it clear that she hasn't made up her mind. And a lot of people will be watching how she votes. Remember, Ashcroft scored a lot of points by graciously conceding the election to Mel Carnahan. Many eyes will be on Jean Carnahan to see if she returns the favor.