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Ashcroft headed for U.S. Senate approval Thursday

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), left, and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)
Hatch (left) called Ashcroft a 'religious, thoughtful and kind man who has a reputation of being fair in office.' Leahy said the Ashcroft nomination does ' not inspire confidence in the United States Department of Justice.'  

In this story:

Republicans accuse opponents of 'smearing' Ashcroft

Ashcroft questioned for two days

Confirmation could be over by Friday

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Senate looks set Thursday to confirm former Missouri Republican Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general after senators clashed along party lines in an angry debate on the issue Wednesday.

Ashcroft is expected to pass Senate muster when the confirmation vote is called at 1:45 p.m. Thursday. The one-term senator will be the last of President George W. Bush's 13 Cabinet nominees to be confirmed.

In heated debate on the day before the vote, Republicans defended the recently defeated one-term senator from Missouri, saying his qualifications for the job make him one of the best candidates ever for the position.

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

Republicans accuse opponents of 'smearing' Ashcroft

The full Senate opened its debate on Ashcroft at late morning Wednesday, with Republicans accusing Ashcroft's critics of smearing a "kind" and "fair" man, and Democrats pointing out that though they have concerns about the appointment, they could be making the process a lot more painful.

"We have handled this fairly," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as he spoke against the Ashcroft nomination on the Senate floor. He said Ashcroft's nomination was blatant pandering to the right.

"The only ones that ... have openly gone to the press and bragged about influencing it are an element of the far right of the Republican Party," Leahy said.

"I do feel that the nomination of John Ashcroft to be attorney general does not meet the standard that the president himself has set," said the Vermont Democrat.

Sen. Bob Smith, R-New Hampshire, blasted Democrats, saying they refused to accept the results of the presidential election.

"The election is over. Hello? The election is over folks. The president of the United States should pick his Cabinet," he said. "That is the right thing to do and everyone of you know it."

Ashcroft questioned for two days

The Judiciary panel voted 10-8 Tuesday to recommend Ashcroft's confirmation, capping two tense weeks of hearings and chamber infighting that saw Ashcroft questioned publicly for two straight days -- and a small parade of witnesses brought in to speak for and against the possibility that the former senator, Missouri governor and state attorney general could become the nation's highest-ranking lawyer.

Every Republican on the Judiciary panel voted in favor of Ashcroft on Tuesday. Only one Democrat crossed party lines to join them -- Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Opening debate on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Ashcroft does not deserve the sustained criticism leveled by a number of left-leaning advocacy groups, many of which have expressed alarm that Ashcroft could attempt to incrementally roll back statutes guaranteeing abortion-on-demand.

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.

"He has been one of the most outspoken anti-choice crusaders in the country," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. "He has worked to totally eliminate even in (cases of) rape and incest a woman's right to choose."

"Ashcroft," Hatch said, is a "religious, thoughtful and kind man who has a reputation of being fair in office. I personally resent those who try to impugn him or say otherwise."

Hatch continued by accusing "narrow left-wing interest groups" of painting a "misleading" picture of Ashcrofts's record, and said Ashcroft's confirmation hearing pledge to enforce all standing was representative of Ashcroft as a lawyer and as a man.

"Of the 67 attorneys general we have had, only a handful have come close to the qualifications that John Ashcroft possesses," Hatch said. "He has always been committed to equal justice and opportunity for all."

Leahy, following Hatch on the floor, brought up one of those 67 to make a point.

Edwin Meese, attorney general through most of Ronald Reagan's second term, endured a bruising confirmation process in the then-Democratically controlled Senate in 1985.

Republicans troubled by the criticism of Ashcroft, Leahy hinted, should count their blessings.

"With Edwin Meese, it took considerably longer, with far more witnesses and questions, than we are having in this debate," the Vermont Democrat said.

Confirmation could be over by Friday

The White House, Leahy argued, only sent Ashcroft's official nomination to the Senate two days ago. With debate already advancing to the Senate floor, and Sen. Edward Kennedy's pledge not to orchestrate a filibuster, the confirmation process could be over by Friday morning at the latest.

Still, Leahy said, Bush's choice of the right-leaning Ashcroft over the more moderate former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who reported to be his first choice, signaled an unwillingness on the part of conservative Republicans and the Bush administration to acknowledge the messages sent by this past year's presidential election.

"We have to consider the historical context of this debate," Leahy said. "One person gets a half-million more votes, and the other becomes president by one electoral vote after a recount.

"I think he has an obligation to try to unite this country and not to divide this country," Leahy said. "But the Ashcroft nomination does meet the standard the president set (in his inaugural address). It does not inspire confidence in the United States Department of Justice."

Republicans continued through the day to insist that Ashcroft's intents and motives were being miscast.

Ashcroft is a man of integrity, insisted Ohio Republican Mike DeWine, and he predicted Ashcroft's tenure at the Justice Department would only serve to bolster that reputation.

"This individual will ultimately be judged not by any one particular decision he will make, but by a perception about what type of person the attorney general was," DeWine said. "How did they conduct their office? What kind of respect did they have? Did they bring honesty, integrity and courage to the job?"

But Schumer said Democrats were doing what they had to do in the face of Ashcroft's extremism.

"I am not saying I will vote against John Ashcroft because he is pro-life," Schumer added, addressing his GOP colleagues. "But let me say if someone was nominated for attorney general who was vehemently pro choice -- who in his or her career spent decades trying to find ways to expand the law abortion at nine months would be perfectly legal -- wouldn't you be more upset and raise more of a voice than against a nominee who was simply pro-choice?"

Bush held his first full Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon, most of which was to be devoted to his tax relief package. The Justice Department sent a representative in the stead of a seated attorney general.



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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