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Ashcroft set for a third day of hearings

January 17, 2001
Web posted at: 9:49 p.m. EST (0249 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on John Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general will resume Thursday at 9:30 a.m., when Ronnie White is expected to testify.

White is the Missouri judge whom Ashcroft blocked from ascending to a seat on the federal bench in 1999. As a senator, Ashcroft worked to stop White's nomination, criticizing the African-American jurist as soft on the death penalty.

Day two of the hearings on Capitol Hill adjourned at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday, after a day-long session that devolved for a short time into a sharp exchange between two Judiciary Committee senators about the attorney general-designee's positions on gun control, while Ashcroft himself could only sit and look on.

Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft  

Shortly after the proceedings were gaveled to order Wednesday morning, an animated, angered Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, pressed Ashcroft on his views on gun control, which the former Missouri senator opposes in most of its legislative forms. Sitting a few seats over to Kennedy's right, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona jumped to Ashcroft's defense, saying Kennedy's characterizations of Ashcroft's views were blatant misrepresentations.

In the course of the last two days, Kennedy has blasted Ashcroft for saying in his former life as a legislator that U.S. citizens must retain the right to bear arms to protect against "a tyrannical government." Such sentiments, Kennedy argued, were borne of a "radical" reading of the Constitution.

Kyl said Kennedy was overreacting to the spirit of Ashcroft's remarks, and was taking them out of context.

Sen. Edward Kennedy  

"I don't retreat," a furious Kennedy responded.

From the opening of Wednesday's portion of the three-day hearings, President-elect George W. Bush's designee to head the Justice Department was immediately hit by Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee on his philosophy as a legislator.

Many of the panel's Democrats repeated their expressions of concern over Ashcroft's ability to enforce laws that might run counter to his partisan loyalties and religious faith, and many pounded him with continued questions on issues they considered most in danger of being affected by an Ashcroft-led Justice Department.

Ashcroft opposes abortion rights except when a woman's life is in danger, and while in the Senate, he pushed for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. He opposed measures to give racial preferences to minorities, and his opposition to the 1999 nomination of a black Missouri Supreme Court justice to the federal bench has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups.

Ashcroft, responding to a question posed by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, said he was "a common sense conservative" when he served in the Senate, and while he was on record as saying he did not think the GOP should engage in ideological compromise, he did not wish to "impugn anyone for their political beliefs."

Sen. Herb Kohl  

Kohl had cited an early quote in which Ashcroft urged his party colleagues not to engage in compromise.

"That quotation," Ashcroft explained, "was about my view that our party should set a clear agenda. I would expect others on the other side to come forward with a liberal agenda. It is in the collision of ideas -- that is the process by which we get legislation. Those differences enhance the quality of what we do."

There was a note of resignation to Kohl's line of questioning, with the senior Wisconsin senator conceding to Ashcroft at one point: "Well, you're likely to be confirmed, as we all know."

Ashcroft was also peppered with more questions about his stance on abortion, and his ability to enforce the constitutionally guaranteed access to abortion, despite his personal opposition to the procedure.

"My opposition to the aborting of unborn children has been a deeply held position of mine," Ashcroft said. "Reasonable people do differ on these things."

"But," Ashcroft said, repeating a phrase oft-used during these hearings, "I know the difference between enactment and enforcement."

The former senator, pressed further, said he would enforce the laws that protect doctors and patients at abortion clinics, saying intimidation and treats of physical violence outside of such establishments were clear violations of the law.

"People who interfere with the exercise of constitutionally protected rights should be the focus of attention by prosecutorial authorities," Ashcroft said. "The attorney general should respond aggressively to violence, destruction and coercion.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein  

Nonetheless, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein tore into Ashcroft for some of his previously stated positions on abortion, saying that as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft marked the 16th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade court decision as "a day in memoriam for aborted fetuses," and that he supported a constitutional amendment declaring that human life begins at the moment of conception.

The hearing room drew a wide range of spectators Wednesday, with former Missouri Sen. John Danforth and current Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- both Republicans -- showing up as a gesture of solidarity, and African-American activist the Rev. Al Sharpton standing at the rear of the Senate caucus room, silently.

Under scrutiny

Ashcroft spent a difficult day Wednesday -- with some of the discomfort alleviated by praise from his Republican friends in the Senate, and verbal gestures of support from Danforth and Collins, who were allowed to offer testimony at midday.

Collins described the criticism of Ashcroft's designation as political in nature, saying though she had had many disagreements with him in the past, she believed he would be an effective and objective attorney general.

"I have disagreed strongly with John on a number of issues," she said. "Our views on abortion rights are far apart."

"But John will fully and vigorously enforce the laws of the United States, regardless of his personal views."

Danforth, following Collins, said, "I would say that any of us might disagree with John on any particular political or philosophical point, but I don't know anyone who has questioned his integrity."

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, questioned Ashcroft's motivations in the case of Justice White.

Sen. Dick Durbin  

Durbin, addressing Ashcroft Wednesday, said, "I think what happened to Ronnie White in the United states Senate was disgraceful."

"I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White," Ashcroft insisted Wednesday. White, Ashcroft said, had a record that demonstrated he was "soft" on criminals, and he used examples of a number of Missouri murder cases to back his claims.

"Judges at the federal level are appointed for life," Ashcroft said. Had White reached the federal bench, he continued, he would have had the authority to overturn decisions of the Missouri Supreme Court. He could not allow that to happen, Ashcroft said.

Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, then quizzed Ashcroft on why he did not publicly criticize the social and political stances taken by Bob Jones University -- where he accepted an honorary degree -- and of Southern Partisan magazine, which printed an interview with Ashcroft.

Southern Partisan describes itself as a "neo-confederate" publication charged with preserving the Southern way of life.

Sen. Joe Biden  

Biden chastised Ashcroft for not apologizing for his appearance in the magazine, saying the very existence of the interview could be offensive to "20 million African Americans."

"This place just loves contrition," Biden said, speaking of the Senate. "We all make mistakes."

"People are suspect because they believe your ideology blinds you to equal application of the law, and the facts," Biden said emphatically.

"I can't say I knew very much about the magazine," Ashcroft replied. "I've had lots of telephone interviews with magazines... I don't have to agree with their views."

"I repudiate racist organizations, racist ideas," he said. "(The) question is will people have confidence in me, and I assure them that they will, because I will serve and I will serve well. I will enforce the law. I reject racism. I reach out to people, all people."



CNN's Chris Black says U.S. Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft swears he can uphold law

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CNN's Bob Franken reviews John Ashcroft's political record

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Listen to Ashcroft's address at Bob Jones University's commencement, May 1999

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Wednesday, January 17, 2001


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