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Burden of Proof

Ashcroft Hearing: Senate Judiciary Committee Poses Tough Questions to Attorney General Nominee

Aired January 17, 2001 - 1:17 p.m. ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Hello and welcome to this special edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. "CNN TODAY" will continue in just a moment.

Now, this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee picked up where it left off yesterday with tough questions for George W. Bush's nominee for the post of attorney general.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft defended his conservative positions and his Capitol Hill voting record. He assured his former Senate colleagues that he would put his political beliefs aside for the better of the country and the goals of the Bush administration.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: That I would expect, in the role of attorney general, to enforce all the laws vigorously; and as it related to policy matters, to reflect the administration's policy and effort to achieve the kinds of things that this administration was elected to achieve by the American people.


COSSACK: Joining us today are Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, former Assoc. Dep. Attorney General Jeffrey Harrison, Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood.

VAN SUSTEREN: In our back row, Sam Shoemaker (ph) and Marie Noe- Durham.

Gloria, let me go first to you. The issue of abortion: the nominee says he will enforce the law. Is that enough? I know you're going to testify, but is that enough? If not, why not?

GLORIA FELDT, PLANNED PARENTHOOD: No, I expected that he would say, I'll enforce the law. What else would he say? And that's why it's so important that the senators are asking follow-up questions, and there needs to be more. I think that Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Schumer have done a very good job of really focusing on: it's not just about, will you enforce, say, the Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrance Act, it's about what will you do when there is an opportunity -- excuse me -- to argue a case that could overturn Roe vs. Wade in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Given your past history, what will you do? What position will you take? How will you shape it? What will you advise the president?

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me play devil's advocate with you, though. But he would be going to court and asking the court to make that decision. He wouldn't be making that decision himself. Isn't that enough?

FELDT: No, he would be choosing to use the auspices, the power and the stature of the U.S. Attorney General's Office to try to shape the law. That has happened many times in the past. For example, Ed Meese, when he was attorney general, asked the court five times in seven years to consider the constitutionality of Roe vs. Wade. It has happened in the past. It is not unlikely to happen if John Ashcroft becomes U.S. attorney general.

COSSACK: Congressman Hutchinson, we see these hearings going on and we see these questions being asked, but what are the purposes of these questions? Is it really with the expectation that John Ashcroft will not be confirmed, or is it an exercise in politics for people to get their own political views out?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, I think you see partly those who are trying to express their political view, trying to satisfy a special interest group that's out there. You all see another realm of questions that are interested in policy matters from antitrust questions to enforcement of the Brady law to what the position on the McCain-Feingold Bill would be if that campaign finance reform bill passes. And so there's a multitude of purposes in the questioning. I think John Ashcroft's done an extraordinary job expressing the balance that he sees, understanding the difference between making policy as a legislator and enforcing the law and being a legal adviser. And I think he's really defined that well.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you about that, about that issue of balance. And let me raise the sort of adage, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. He didn't have that view when Bill Lan Lee was nominated to be head of the Civil Rights Division. What he said there is that Bill Lan Lee had obviously the strong capacity to be an advocate, but his "pursuit of specific objects limit balanced views." I mean, why is it OK for him to say, I'll follow the law, yet with Bill Lan Lee he said, basically, your ideology disqualifies you?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I think there's a little bit of difference there. The question in the Bill Lan Lee was the Adaran (ph) decision that dealt with preferences and quotas and there was a disagreement on what that decision meant. And so even though there was acknowledgement we will enforce the Adaran decision, there was a dispute as to what that meant.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that's with Gloria what -- I just asked the same identical thing with Gloria, is you go to court. It's not Bill Lan Lee making the decision or Sen. Ashcroft making the decision, both have used the court's to resolve it. And so why is that a disqualifier? HUTCHINSON: Well, I mean, I think that you can say that, you know, in reference to Bill Lan Lee, that different people had different views on that. But obviously the majority of the Republicans were concerned about whether the Adaran decision would be properly enforced. I think also there's been a little bit different view as to Cabinet officials and given the president making sure his team is in there versus subcabinet-level positions such as Bill Lan Lee where they look at a little bit closer because their impact on some of the direct policy.

VAN SUSTEREN: He has a boss.

COSSACK: Jeff, to follow up on Greta's question, does it -- is there a distinction between someone who is acting in a senatorial capacity as an advocate for his constituents as opposed to someone who is now trying to become the attorney general and saying, I have to put my constituents aside and represent the entire country? Is that a distinction or not?

JEFFREY HARRIS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSOCIATE ATTORNEY GENERAL: Oh, sure it's a distinction. I think that there is a major distinction when you're fulfilling an executive job in an administration as opposed to being a legislator. And I think what Sen. Ashcroft is trying to get across is the notion that regardless of my personal views, I recognize that when I'm in one role, I have a different responsibility, much like Joe Lieberman, when ran for vice president, said, I understand that when I'm a senator, I speak my mind. When I'm the vice president, I also have an obligation of loyalty to the president.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that's the Bill -- then we're Back to Bill Lan Lee then, though. That's the same problem. We're back to him -- Gloria.

FELDT: And I think what's astonishing is to hear Sen. Ashcroft repeatedly say, yes, I believe all these things, but when I'm attorney general I will put all that aside. I find that very difficult to believe.

COSSACK: Yes, but how do you...

VAN SUSTEREN: So how do you prove it?

FELDT: The question that that raises, I think, is he has been talked about as being a man of integrity. I'm hard pressed to see how, if you have that level of integrity, you could simply say in response to a law that you have spent your very career trying to overturn, or a court ruling you have spent your entire career trying to overturn...

COSSACK: But that's what -- I think that's what you have to do.

FELDT: ... and now to be able to say, it's the settled law of the land. I would enforce it.s

VAN SUSTEREN: And unfortunately, we're out of time. I'm very sorry. It's an interesting discussion that's going to go on.

We're going to take a break. And when CNN comes back, it's "CNN TODAY." Stay with us.



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