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Ashcroft begins first full day as U.S. attorney general

John Ashcroft
Ashcroft arrives at the Supreme Court for his swearing-in Thursday.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft starts his first working day as attorney general of the United States on Friday.

Ashcroft took the oath of office at the Supreme Court on Thursday evening -- following an unusually tight 58-42 confirmation vote on the Senate floor earlier in the day.

Ashcroft was sworn into the office by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a longtime friend. The ceremony was brief and private, with only family members and a few close associates thought to be in attendance. Ashcroft and Thomas both served under then-Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, also a former senator, in the 1970s.

A formal swearing-in ceremony, which will be attended by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, will be scheduled for next week.

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Ashcroft issued a written statement just minutes before arriving at the high court for his swearing-in. He thanked Bush and his former colleagues in the Senate, and sought to assure the public that he would run a tight ship.

"I am grateful to the president and the United States Senate for the opportunity to serve the American people as attorney general," he said. "I am committed to preserving the special history of the Department of Justice by actively confronting injustice.

"Let me send a clear message today," the statement continued. "I will confront injustice by leading a professional Justice Department that is free from politics, that is uncompromisingly fair... The Justice Department will vigorously enforce the law guaranteeing rights for the advancement of all Americans."

Ashcroft's formal ascension leaves Robert Zoellick, Bush's nominee for U.S. trade representative, the only unconfirmed member of the president's inner circle. The Senate should cast its confirmation vote on Zoellick's nomination next week. Bush has opted to elevate the USTR to a Cabinet-level position.

Close vote a 'warning'

The Senate vote on Ashcroft became official Thursday afternoon when Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, returned to Washington from attending a funeral to cast a late 'no' vote after a roll call that lasted about an hour.

Ashcroft secured the 51-vote simple majority needed for confirmation just minutes after the roll call began on the floor at 1:40 p.m. EST.

Eight Democrats joined all the Senate's Republicans to confirm Ashcroft. They included: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, John Breaux of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia.

The Senate's most strident voices against the nomination said they had expected Ashcroft to be confirmed, but the 42 votes against their former colleague should be viewed as a sign that they will closely watch the Justice Department under Ashcroft.

"These are the most votes against a nominee for attorney general who has been confirmed," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The vote is a shot across the bow in terms of the Justice Department and how it conducts itself, in terms of upcoming Supreme Court nominations, and the push-and-pull within the Bush administration," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. "Will it be bipartisan or will it be pulled to the right?"

Democrats in the Senate and a host of advocacy groups have accused the newly inaugurated president of bending to pressure exerted by the far right in choosing Ashcroft as the nation's highest ranking lawyer.

Republicans have consistently described these and similar assertions, as well as characterizations of Ashcroft's record, as ridiculous. Ashcroft, they say, may be the most qualified person ever tapped for the post.

"I was just happy to get to the 51 votes," Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said following the vote.

Hatch said he was bothered by the work of many of the outside groups that tried to influence the Senate's duty of advice and consent on presidential nominations, saying they had too much pull with too many Democratic senators.

"Will we get along better after all this?" Hatch said of relations with his colleagues. "Yes, because we're big people, and we'll gradually put this behind us. But it was disgusting."

"I think we're all going to be lucky to have a good attorney general," Hatch then said of Ashcroft. "You can go to bed feeling a little more safe in the next few months, because we're going to have an attorney general that is going to get tough as heck on crime."

Debate draws to a close

The sharply divided chamber wrapped up its debate Thursday morning on Ashcroft's nomination, while Ashcroft's office at the Justice Department awaited his arrival for his first day of work.

Ashcroft's long-standing conservative political and religious views have been highlighted by his regular critics, who say they do not think he will adequately enforce civil rights laws, and argue that his religious beliefs simply will not allow him to enforce standing laws with which he may philosophically or morally disagree.

A number of left-leaning advocacy groups have expressed specific alarm that Ashcroft could attempt to incrementally roll back statutes guaranteeing abortion on demand.

"Sen. Ashcroft has a deeply disturbing record on issue after issue of vital importance to millions of Americans," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, on Thursday.

In two days of testimony two weeks ago during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, Ashcroft pledged to uphold all standing laws, despite his personal points of view. The rule of law, Ashcroft insisted, would always trump his personal interests as long as he leads the Department of Justice.

Debate opened on the Senate floor Wednesday, with Republicans saying Ashcroft's qualifications for the job make him one of the best ever for the position. Prior to his six years in the Senate, Ashcroft was the twice-elected governor of Missouri, and also served as the state's attorney general.

Democrats, with only a few notable exceptions, said Ashcroft was not fit for the post due to his record on civil rights, labor, gun control and women's issues.

Those lines or argument continued unbroken into Thursday's second day of floor discussion.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, former Vice President Al Gore's running mate on the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket, stood on the Senate floor Thursday morning and said he would oppose the Ashcroft nomination, even though he has known his former Senate colleague for 40 years, stretching back to their years in college.

"I have to oppose his nomination," Lieberman said after first heaping praise upon the nominee. "This is awkward and uncomfortable."

Lieberman, who often promoted his own Jewish Orthodox faith while stumping for the vice presidency, said he was not voting against Ashcroft because Ashcroft was a conservative Christian, but because Ashcroft's record as a politician raised some red flags.

"Based on his record, I will vote against his confirmation," Lieberman said.

Ashcroft's political dealings were highlighted by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who soon followed Lieberman on the floor and pilloried the nominee for, while in the Senate, opposing the appointment of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench, and the nomination of James Hormel to be the Clinton administration's ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hormel, who is openly gay, was unfit to serve as an ambassador because of his own political activism, Ashcroft argued as a senator, and White, an African-American judge, was not a good fit for a federal judgeship because he was soft on criminal candidates for the death penalty, according to Ashcroft.

But critics have accused Ashcroft of displaying subtle forms of discrimination in both cases, and of damaging the careers of both men to further his own political interests.

"I would like to say to Sen. Ashcroft, if he is confirmed I wish him the very best," Wellstone said. "But I would also like to say that this is, in my 10 1/2 years in the Senate, as close as I can remember coming to a basic civil rights vote, a basic human rights vote.

"I cannot support John Ashcroft to be attorney general," he said.

One Democrat stepped forward to express unexpected support for the nomination. Connecticut's Dodd said he thought White and Hormel were treated shamefully, but he was not willing to punish Ashcroft in the same way. Thus, Dodd said, Ashcroft would get a 'yes' vote.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of subtle prejudices of their own.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said Ashcroft's opponents were opposed to the nomination because the former senator has been open about expressing his dependence on his religious faith.

"It says 'In God We Trust' on our coins, but it isn't that way in our hearts," Gramm said.

The "ugly caricature" presented of Ashcroft, Gramm continued, was undeserved.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said Ashcroft could be taken at his earlier word.

"I believe he will enforce the law without prejudice," Shelby said.

At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday morning that Bush has impressed on Ashcroft the importance of improving and enforcing civil rights statutes.

"The Department of Justice enforces civil rights laws and is sensitive to civil rights concerns," Fleischer said. "The president thinks John Ashcroft is a man of integrity. He is a good man and he will enforce the civil rights laws. He said he talked to John Ashcroft about this when selecting him."

Bush telephoned Ashcroft shortly after the Senate vote wound down to offer his congratulations. The president also placed a call to thank Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, for leading the process.



RELATED STORIES:
Senators spar over Ashcroft nomination
January 31, 2001
Bush to hold first Cabinet meeting Wednesday without Ashcroft
January 30, 2001
Judiciary Committee's top Democrat opposes Ashcroft
January 29, 2001
Ashcroft supporters combat accusations of discrimination
January 26, 2001

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