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Crossfire

Are Democratic Senators Giving John Ashcroft a Fair Hearing?

Aired January 17, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: ... to Washington and his date with history. Aides say that tonight, he could call John Ashcroft. And his nominee for attorney general might appreciate a kind word from the president-elect.

He spent day two of his confirmation hearings getting blistered by former colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and on his comments about the Confederacy, on gun controls and once again on race. But Democrat Barbara Boxer of California is still the only senator to actually declare against Ashcroft. Announcing support for him today were moderate Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia and liberal Republican Susan Collins of Maine.

And Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle announced there will be no filibuster against Ashcroft. Tomorrow, the committee will hear from Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, an African-American whose confirmation as a federal judge was defeated by Ashcroft's leadership. Predictably, Judge White won't endorse Ashcroft. So, is John Ashcroft on the way to confirmation, but bleeding from a thousand wounds?

Lisa Caputo, former press secretary to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is sitting in on the left.

Welcome, Lisa.

LISA CAPUTO, GUEST CO-HOST: Nice to be with you.

Boy, we saw a lot of skepticism today swirling around Capitol Hill. We saw, I think, two different John Ashcrofts, David Keene. Let me go to a sound bite, if I may, from Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, who talked about the dual John Ashcrofts we saw today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I see a kind of metamorphosis -- a mutation, if you will -- of somebody that has been really on the far right of many of the issues about which senators have spoken today or yesterday -- civil rights, a woman's right to choice, certainly guns -- is now making a change. And, quite frankly, I don't know what to believe.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CAPUTO: David, how would you explain this? Here is a man -- John Ashcroft -- who has spent his entire career basically building his career on opposing abortion and in favor of the right to bear arms, opposing gun control. Yet today he says he is going to uphold abortion and he's going to defend the constitutionality of gun control. How do you explain somebody who has said that the Roe versus Wade decision was a miserable failure? He cast 43 votes against abortion. How do you explain this change of heart? Is he just looking to get confirmed?

DAVID KEENE, CHAIRMAN, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION: You don't have two -- you don't have different John Ashcrofts. What you would have are two different jobs.

As governor of Missouri, though John Ashcroft was strongly opposed to abortion, he was very strongly in favor, for example, of protecting access to abortion clinics. Does that many he's two-faced? No. It means that if you have a law and you believe in the law, that your job as an executive branch officer is one thing. Your personal beliefs and your belief as a legislator are something else entirely.

If John Ashcroft were a senator, I would be willing to bet you that he would not vote for firearms registration. If he is attorney general and it passed and became law, then his job would be different. It would be to enforce that law and to defend its constitutionality whether he liked it or not, just as he did as Missouri attorney general. So I don't see two John Ashcrofts. I see people taking two different jobs with very different kinds of responsibilities and saying, you know: How can you have been this and then be this?

Well, he has been both a legislator and he's been an executive officer. And he has performed well in both of those jobs throughout his career. And there's no reason to believe he couldn't now.

CAPUTO: Yes, but isn't this a double-standard, really, when you think about it? I mean, you just said ideology doesn't really play a role here. We're talking about ideology versus qualifications...

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: I didn't say that at all.

CAPUTO: ... versus qualification and record, OK. When John Ashcroft looked at some of the Clinton administration nominees who came up today and were discussed -- Ronnie White, David Satcher and others -- his standard during those -- some of those confirmation hearings was that he did not agree with some of the views that these people espoused and therefore, even though they said they would uphold the law, he was uncomfortable with their position. Why shouldn't John Ashcroft be held to the same Ashcroft standard?

KEENE: Well, a judgeship is very different because -- and in the case -- in the Ronnie White case, you had you two cases where he was the lone dissenter. They became symbolic. John Ashcroft felt very strongly on one side; White and his supporters on the other side. There was a division in the Senate; White lost. In these other cases, you really do have a situation where some people will vote. I'll oppose Cabinet appointment of somebody that I don't like. But ordinarily, the president's choice for a Cabinet job is not going to fall simply because people disagree with his or her views. It takes more than that, and John Ashcroft throughout his career has demonstrated not only integrity; not only competence; but an ability to do a whole variety of jobs.

I dare say there's nobody in our history, at least in our modern history, who's been appointed to this important office with the kind of experience and background that John Ashcroft has for this job.

NOVAK: Ralph Neas, you're an experienced politician, and you can count. Picking up support, you lose a moderate like Zell Miller of Georgia. You're not getting the liberal Republicans. Arlen Specter is for him.

But let me read you this: Despite all the bloviating from your left-wing cabal, the Gallup poll taken this week says should we vote -- should there be a vote against a Cabinet nominee because of policy disagreements? Justified, 23 percent; unjustified, 70. They don't want to say we are going to eliminate this guy because we don't like his position on policy.

RALPH NEAS, PRESIDENT, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: Bob, you're not doing your homework. According to "Newsweek" poll, Americans by a 41 to 37 plurality oppose John Ashcroft because he's too extreme. According to "The Wall Street Journal" -- my favorite newspaper -- NBC Poll, it's a 45 to 44 plurality. The American people are agreeing with many of the senators. It's going to be a very close vote in committee and on the floor. We oppose him for three reasons. Number one: His views are so extreme, so far to the right of the Republican Party and even much father than American people. He's even farther to the right than Jesse Helms and you, Bob Novak.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Let me say, you have offended me. I am to the right of John Ashcroft.

NEAS: No, you're not. But very importantly, in addressing David Keene, what we found out in our 55-page report that we put out last week was while he was attorney general and had the responsibility to enforce the law, he didn't, especially with abortion rights and with civil rights. He was criticized by two federal district court judges for defying court orders.

NOVAK: I'm glad you -- I'm glad you got your talking points out, but let's tell what's really going on. There's an effort by you and your crowd to blackmail Democratic senators, and maybe even some liberal Republicans, and I just want to show you the type of the blackmail that's going on by one of the blackmailers, which we're going to have one, and then a response to her by a senior moderate Republican senator. Let's watch that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PATRICIA IRELAND, NOW PRESIDENT: And it could mean a rude awakening for senators in their next elections if they vote yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I do want to make a comment about the mob of extremist that have hit the air waves and are trying to intimidate members of Senate into voting against Senator Ashcroft. I hope my colleagues have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to these extremists' accusations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Will they stand up to your extremists' accusations, Ralph Neas?

NEAS: I couldn't disagree more with your characterizations and assertions, Bob. What we are doing is sharing the facts with the Senate, with the press people like yourself and the American people all the reasons why the Senate should reject this nomination.

NOVAK: Wasn't that blackmail? They say vote no, we're going to beat you in the next election.

NEAS: Bob, I worked for two Republican senators. I've worked around this issues for 25 years. I've never seen a worst executive branch nomination in the past 25 years.

NOVAK: Why don't you respond to my question, Ralph? I said, aren't you saying you are going to be in trouble your next election unless you buckle under to our demand?

NEAS: We are saying, Bob Novak, you should take your constitutional responsibilities of advising in the Senate seriously; don't rush to judgment. We have not asked one senator to oppose John Ashcroft. We have said, don't rush to judgment; evaluate all the facts; listen to our testimony. It's going to be so compelling you will vote against him.

CAPUTO: David Keene...

KEENE: You know, Bob's cut right to the bottom line because what Ralph and his friends are attempting to do, and they're an important part of the Democratic financial and voting base and activist base. What they're doing is trying to get members of United States Senate not to vote on the question of whether the man they worked with and known over the years should be attorney general, but to vote on a caricature that they're presenting.

There are going to be some senators up there who are going to buckle, because they are afraid or because they need your support or whatever. My bet is that it's not going to be anything approaching enough to defeat John Ashcroft. But let's not fool ourselves. This is an attempt to leverage ideological pressure within the Democratic Party to get Democratic senators to vote against the man that Ralph and his friends don't like.

CAPUTO: And that's not what John Ashcroft did with Ronnie White and James Hormel and David Satcher? He didn't do the same thing by thrusting his ideology upon those people when they were up for confirmation?

KEENE: He opposed them. We are not talking about senators opposing -- if this were left to the United States Senate, if these senators were doing their jobs -- there are some ideological hot-heads up there. A couple of names on the committee come to find. But fact of matter is that, without outside pressure, most senators -- including most Democrats -- would vote on the merits and would confirm John Ashcroft without too much of a fight, because they know him. They have worked with him.

CAPUTO: Let me ask you. Then, would your Conservative Union, the organization which you represent -- which has given Ashcroft a 100 percent voting record over the past several years -- if he were to uphold Roe versus Wade, would you still give that 100 percent voting rating?

KEENE: As attorney general, I would expect John Ashcroft to uphold the law. You know

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: The current attorney general, Ms. Reno, has not enforced this country's gun laws. We had a discussion of gun laws in that committee today. She hasn't enforced them. John Ashcroft will. Where was Ralph? Where was...

CAPUTO: But he hasn't to date.

KEENE: He hasn't been attorney general to date.

CAPUTO: He was attorney general in the state of Missouri, was he not?

KEENE: And did enforce them, and in fact asked for higher penalties.

CAPUTO: No, he was against child-safety locks. He held a hearing on the right to bear arms.

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: Because those are his views. That's not the question you are asking. You are not asking the question of whether he believes a law ought to be passed. What the relevant question is, if that law is passed, whether he agrees or disagrees with it, if he is the attorney general, will he do his job? And the answer to that question is yes.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: We are going to have to take a break right now.

KEENE: Really?

NOVAK: And when we come back, we will talk about hypocrisy -- hypocrisy? But both of our guests -- both of them will be in the chat room together right after the show. You can join them by logging onto cnn.com/crossfire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAPUTO: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Lisa Caputo, sitting in on the left. We're discussing the heated Ashcroft nomination hearings on Capitol Hill. Our guests tonight: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way -- Bob.

NOVAK: Ralph Neas, you are an experienced Democratic politician, run for office yourself. So you know that "d," as well as standing for Democrat, stands for demagoguery. And I would like you to look at one of the prime examples of demagoguery I have seen in a long time from a very senior Democrat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I think this nominee owes an apology to the people of the United States for that insinuation: talking about our government now being the source of a tyrannical oppression. That's what I think, Senator. I don't retreat. I don't retreat on any one of those matters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Well, what Senator Ashcroft had written was that he favored the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms against a -- any government of tyrannical oppression. He didn't say our government was. He could have been talking about Hitler. He could have been talking about Saddam Hussein. Isn't that demagoguery to twist a person's words and say he was accusing his own government of being a government of tyrannical oppression?

NEAS: Bob, you only listened to the first half the hearings today. You are repeating exactly what Senator Jon Kyl said to Senator Kennedy and John Ashcroft. About an hour-and-a-half later, Senator Kennedy responded, went back to the hearing record and read exactly what John Ashcroft said, which was exactly what Ted Kennedy said. You didn't listen to the second half of the hearing.

NOVAK: He didn't say this was a government of tyrannical oppression.

KEENE: No, if you go to the historical roots of the Second Amendment, the founding fathers put it in with -- with exactly that rationale and exactly that kind of language. And if you refer back to that -- as John Ashcroft has done -- in looking at the history of the Second Amendment, that's what you said. That's what is there.

That's not -- that's not saying anything about our government today. What it's doing is saying: What was the rationale of the founders for putting the Second Amendment in the Constitution? And you know that.

NEAS: David, Senator Kennedy read exactly what John Ashcroft said later on in the hearing today.

NOVAK: Well, let me say -- let's move from demagoguery to hypocrisy. The chairman for a day -- isn't that what you call him: the chairman for a day of the -- of this committee, Senator...

NEAS: Eighteen days, Bob.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: It's almost over.

KEENE: It seems longer.

NOVAK: Yes. It seems like an eternity.

Senator Leahy was criticizing Senator Ashcroft for having criticized the U.S. Supreme Court. If anybody deserves criticism, it's the U.S. Supreme Court over the years. And do you know who one of the greatest critics of the Supreme Court was this year, attacking them, bitterly saying they will never stand up again? Do you know who that was? It was Pat Leahy when they ruled against your candidate, Al Gore. That's hypocrisy, isn't it?

NEAS: Bob, are you discussing issues that the American people are not putting at the top of the agenda.

NOVAK: No, they're at the top of my agenda.

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: And they're not -- I'm on the show. It's my show! It's not their show!

(LAUGHTER)

NEAS: But why are the American people opposing John Ashcroft?

KEENE: They're not.

NEAS: It's because they found out that John Ashcroft supports the constitutional amendment he introduced to ban abortions even in the case of rape and incest, and would ban contraceptives, like the birth-control pill and IUDs. That's why we're opposing him.

NOVAK: But wait a minute. See, that is why I ask. I'm just asking: How can Pat Leahy attack him for criticizing the Supreme Court? Do you remember what Leahy said about the Supreme Court: We can never look at the Supreme Court again because they didn't do what I wanted them to do?

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: ... Schumer calling him a zealot. You know, I mean, he ought to know one.

NEAS: He was putting it in the context of attacking the Supreme Court, attacking the federal judiciary, attacking individual nominees that were going up for the federal district court. That's not hypocrisy at all.

CAPUTO: I would like to go back to the gun-control issue because I think there is more for be said on this topic. And I want to go back and give Senator Kennedy some more air time, and go to a reference he made on -- in the committee today to a fund-raising letter that Senator Ashcroft sent out, where he said some interesting things about Jim Brady.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: Senator Ashcroft used those words, besides calling James Brady -- who was shot in the assassination attempt of President Reagan -- a loyal Republican, distinguished citizen, whose life has been battling those wounds -- and you call him the leading enemy of responsible gun-owners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAPUTO: Now, how do you justify this? How do you justify an attorney general nominee who has opposed gun control throughout his career, now is saying he is going to uphold the constitutionality of gun control, with the backdrop of saying James Brady, President Reagan's former press secretary, is the leading enemy of responsible gun control? Isn't he really in the pocket of the NRA?

KEENE: Actually, it's his wife who is the leading enemy. But if -- it sounds like we are going back the beginning of the program. Again, the question is: What is your job? He had every right -- I agree with his positions against gun control, against registration, again licensing, against confiscation.

As attorney general of the United States, or as -- once you take that oath, you are in a different realm and you have a different job. You might hope that that law doesn't exist. But if it's constitutional and it's on the books, then your job is to enforce it. And, as I said before, the current attorney general has not enforced the existing gun laws in this country.

CAPUTO: I don't know where you get that. The current attorney general is not in the back pocket of the NRA. She did not run for Senate and receive $300,000 plus in her Senatorial campaign as John Ashcroft did.

KEENE: Where was Ralph when she wouldn't do this; when she attempted to close down Project Exile in Richmond -- which was the enforcement of federal gun laws? Where was she? I guess, on his criteria, she should have resigned, because she...

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: John Ashcroft would. NEAS: Janet Reno has been a fine attorney general, independent, and she has enforced the law across the board -- that's the record.

NOVAK: Well, I wonder if we can get away from the spin and the talking points and talk about what is really going on. If I gave you sodium pentathol -- I just happen to have a little here -- you would admit that John Ashcroft is going to be confirmed, Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin admitted it today; he can't tell a lie.

What is going on -- you may not even be able to amend his behavior as attorney general. You're going try to put him in a bind, so he can't do anything, but isn't what's really going on: spring training for George W. Bush's judicial nominees? This is just getting out all the demagoguery, all the hypocrisy, all the nastiness, all your pressure groups putting out the ads, when he names appointments and replacements for the Supreme Court.

NEAS: There's no question. I said many times over the last year, we are threatened by a Scalia, Thomas court that would overturn 100 Supreme Court precedents and we said we would oppose such a nominee. However, this has nothing do on with this.

(CROSSTALK)

NEAS: This is about the number one law enforcement job in the country, someone that will influence the daily lives of every single American; this is not over, this is half however. Tomorrow, Ronnie White is going to come in and testify, and he will show that John Ashcroft misled the Senate by egregiously misrepresenting his public record. That alone is going to disqualify him to be a attorney general.

Then, you're going to have a number of witnesses that will come in and say, listen, when he was attorney general, he had an opportunity to enforce the law, but he didn't. Federal district court judges said, you are in defiance of the law; he was in defiance of the law with respect to Roe v. Wade. He tried to prevent nurses to dispensing birth control pills -- unbelievable.

NOVAK: You run out the clock on me.

NEAS: I learned from you!

NOVAK: But I think you are wrong. So we will say, thank you Ralph Neas and thank you, David Keene. Ms. Caputo and I will be back with closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: The CROSSFIRE doesn't end here; you can take the debate on- line and chat with Ralph Neas and David Keene; just log on to cnn.com/crossfire.

Lisa, you know I don't know if you caught this at all today but the low point of the hearings came when Joe Biden started a critique of John Ashcroft's comments on the Confederacy. I didn't know, saying that the soldiers of the Confederacy were courageous people, even if they didn't believe in their cause -- I didn't know that was a crime, but I'll tell you, the nastiness and meanness of these hearings will come back to bite the Democrats.

CAPUTO: I'm not so sure, "o, prince of darkness." I'm just not so sure about that. You know, George Bush said he was going to come in to the presidency, he arrived in Washington today, pets in tow, that he was going to be a uniter and not a divider. Why would he throw forth for this nomination, such a divisive figure in John Ashcroft? Is he just placating the far right of Bob Novak and Pat Buchanan?

NOVAK: I thought he was going to unite the conservatives and he has. All the conservatives are used to being at each other's throats are supporting John Ashcroft.

CAPUTO: Not if he upholds Roe v. Wade. From the left, I'm Lisa Caputo -- good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak -- join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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