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Crossfire

Why Were So Many Democrats Opposed to John Ashcroft?

Aired February 1, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

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

ANNOUNCER: ... Congressman David Dreier of California, chairman of the Rules Committee.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

He was confirmed by the Senate. He received a congratulatory call from President Bush. He was sworn in by, yes, Justice Clarence Thomas. John Ashcroft is the new attorney general of the United States.

But he didn't get there easily. Majority Leader Trent Lott had projected Ashcroft would get between 65 and 70 votes. Today, he got only 58, more than enough to be confirmed. But 42 Democrats voted against him; more no votes than any other confirmed attorney general.

Both sides today immediately declared victory. Ashcroft supporters bragged about beating back vicious personal opposition. But Ashcroft opponents bragged about sending a strong shot across President Bush's bow. They have enough votes, they say, to block his first nomination to the Supreme Court.

So tonight, who really won and who really lost? Did Ashcroft have to concede too much getting confirmed? Did Democrats waste their powder on a losing cause? -- Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Senator Murray, welcome. When John Ashcroft, a former senator, was appointed -- nominated by President- elect Bush, my Senate sources said if the vote were taken right then, there would be more than 10 votes against him. How did it get up to 42 votes against him? I think the code was broken today by the Senate -- the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And let's listen to Orrin Hatch and how he explains it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: This is one of the worst episodes in the onward trashing soldiers routine that I've ever seen. Outside groups basically cowing United States senators, telling them that they all have primaries and that they'll do everything they can to defeat them unless they send this message to President Bush.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOVAK: Isn't that right? You and your companions buckled under to the vast left-wing conspiracy.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: You know, it was amazing to me to watch the public reaction from the hearings. The public really paid attention to the hearings on the Ashcroft nomination, listened to the questions and the answers, and I think really there was so much passion on this.

I went home and couldn't go through the grocery store without people coming up and staying to me, I'm very concerned this man will protect civil rights, that he'll protect a woman's right to choose, that he'll protect and be fair and somebody we can all trust. This evoked lot of passion. I think all of us felt it in the Senate.

But this wasn't some kind of a collusion. I saw senators really try and sit through the hearings and very fairly listen to Senator Ashcroft, listen to his answers and judge within themselves whether they thought this man could be the people's attorney and the attorney general's office.

NOVAK: Well, I'm sure a lot of ordinary voters were deceived into thinking this was some evil man, but I'd like you to listen to something that Attorney General Ashcroft said in a statement. Let's put it on the screen to see what he said.

He said: "I will confront injustice by leading a professional Justice Department that is free from politics, that is uncompromisingly fair; a department defined by integrity and dedicated to upholding the rule of law.

Senator, isn't that what you're really afraid, that Attorney General Ashcroft is going to crack down on the labor unions; he going to crack down on some of the people who have been given special treatment by Janet Reno?

MURRAY: What Democrats and certainly what I felt very strongly about, certainly what I heard from a lot of people who I represent is that they felt that Senator Ashcroft could not fairly represent them, could not serve justice, and they were concerned about his history both in the segregation in his home state as attorney general.

They were concerned about his treatment of Justice -- Judge Ronnie White, of Bill Lann Lee, of a number of people, and what they want in an attorney general is somebody that they can say above all, this person is going to be fair, and I think throughout the hearings and throughout his answers and his responses, didn't have that sense.

PRESS: Congressman David Dreier, thank you for joining us.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: Great to be with you all.

PRESS: We'll tell everyone you're in Richmond, Virginia, down there for the Republican House and Senate retreat, and dressed in retreat clothing there. Glad to see that.

DREIER: California.

PRESS: California -- you know, because I've said it, I think John Ashcroft was a disaster as a nomination and will be as attorney general. But let's move on. The story, it seems to me, today is not the 58 votes that he got, but the 42 votes against him. As you know, you only need 41 to sustain a filibuster in the United States Senate. Doesn't the vote indicate today that the Democrats have enough votes to block any George Bush nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court? Isn't that what's significant?

DREIER: I don't think it means that all, Bill. I mean, if you look at what has taken place here, it's very obvious to me that, as Orrin Hatch said, there are a wide range of groups that led the American people to say the things that they did to my colleague Patty Murray, to me, and a wide range of others.

And I just happen to believe that it's a mischaracterization of the record of John Ashcroft. John Ashcroft is someone who, as we all know, was the chairman of the National Governor's Association. He was the chairman of the Attorney General's Association, selected by his peers to that position.

They tried to paint him as some kind of extremist, and I don't believe that George Bush will be appointing nominees to the United States Supreme Court or to any other spots who are deserving of the kind of criticism that was leveled at John Ashcroft. So, it's true, Bill, that these groups have gotten out there and successfully convinced many that John Ashcroft is something other than what he is.

And the statement that Bob just put up on to the screen, that was made during the hearings and I listened to the hearings, I mean, it's very clear that John Ashcroft offered very thoughtful answers to the questions and I believe was very deserving of broader support than he got.

PRESS: Senator?

MURRAY: Well, I couldn't disagree more with my colleague, and many of us served in the Senate with John Ashcroft. We admired him for his integrity, for his passion for the issues that he cared about, but 42 votes against him were because we felt that this country did not need to be divided.

Quite frankly, most of us were very surprised that President Bush would put forward a nominee after talking about bringing people together that would so and did divide this country very clearly, as we've seen the debate over the last several weeks. And the message...

DREIER: Patty, I don't...

MURRAY: Let me just finish. I think the message to President Bush is that on this Senate, the body that I'm in, we'll look very carefully at nominees and if they are divisive people that divide the country, they will not get through the Senate.

DREIER: Obviously, the advise and consent provision in the Constitution calls for you to step up and meet you responsibility, just what you described, and I obviously want you to do that. I think it's important to note that George Bush has put forward nominees who, all of whom been confirmed now, all of whom have now been sworn into office, and the fact is we have seen a very, very impressive group of individuals who are, in fact, reflective of America. Bill Clinton said he wanted a Cabinet that looked like America. George Bush has actually done it and I think it's going to be very impressive. Bill, sorry.

PRESS: Congressman, again, we've debated the nominees, but talking about the significance of the vote, I think you begged the question when you said that President Bush is not going to send up nominee to the Supreme Court the Senate is not going to approve. Begs the question, might he have done so without what happened with Ashcroft?

Let me let you listen...

DREIER: I don't believe that.

PRESS: ... to what another senator said today. I think he puts it on point here. Senator Schumer from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: It's a shot across the bow in terms of the Justice Department and how it conducts itself. It's a shot across the bow in terms of Supreme Court nominations. It's a shot across the bow in terms of the push and pull within Bush administration to be moderate and bipartisan, or play to the hard right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: So, what it says: No more Ashcrofts. That's the message, isn't it?

DREIER: Bill, I will tell you, you said it, as you initially came to me, it's time to move ahead. We have the completion of this. The real question is going to be, John Ashcroft's record, and I do believe that George Bush throughout the campaign, Bill, and you heard him say this, he indicated that there would not be a litmus test when it came to his appointees to the United States Supreme Court, which is exactly what has been his record in Texas.

So, I'm convinced that we're going to have people nominated by George Bush to judicial appointments who will, in fact, be able to enjoy broad support just as I believe that when we look at the record of John Ashcroft as attorney general, it will be great.

He's a great crime fighter. You know, he's a Christian who stood up, and in fact, you know, in his own state when he was attorney general, he blocked the distribution of Bibles, because the Constitution of the state of Missouri that it said that he should not do that. So he is going to subscribe to the rule of law. NOVAK: Senator Murray, you raise the defeat of Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White in Missouri as a reason for defeating John Ashcroft. And you know, I -- I finally have looked up the debate record of the defeat on a party-line vote of Judge White. Believe it or not, there were only three United States senators who rose on their feet to support that nomination or to criticize the defeat of him. They were the Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy of Vermont, and Senator Schumer of New York.

Forty-two...

MURRAY: Well, let me tell you...

NOVAK: Just let me just finish -- 42 Democratic senators were silent, including Patty Murray. Why didn't you...

MURRAY: I'll tell you exactly...

NOVAK: Just let me ask the question. If he was so important to you when he was actually up on the line to vote him, why didn't you say something?

MURRAY: I'll tell you exactly why: because Democrats had no idea that John Ashcroft was going to go into his caucus lunch and talk to his caucus members and tell them that they should come out right after that caucus to a vote to defeat him on a party line.

We felt as always, when a nomination came to the floor -- and we had a lot of them that didn't come -- so when one came, they were supported, the record was there, it was going to be approved. We were taken quite by surprise to come out from that caucus lunch and find senators voting against him for reasons...

NOVAK: But senator...

MURRAY: I remember siting there saying to my Republican colleagues, why are you opposing this man? We've heard nothing against him.

NOVAK: Senator, you never -- you didn't -- you never got on the Senate floor for the rest of that session. I have checked -- I have checked the record. You never said one word. And I'll tell you something else, I cannot find one word of criticism during the debate, after the debate, in the months following the debate of John Ashcroft.

John Ashcroft's role was never raised on the Senate floor until he was nominated for attorney general. That's -- that's just demagoguery, isn't it?

MURRAY: I don't think so at all. I think that many of us were very surprised by that vote.

NOVAK: Why didn't you say something on the floor then?

MURRAY: Because we never know that John Ashcroft... NOVAK: But afterwards, after the fact. ] MURRAY: ... was going to then be -- then be put up for attorney general, which is a very different position than a senator that advocates for something. Attorney general has to be there to fight for the laws for all Americans. It's a very different position.

NOVAK: We have to take a break. Congressman David Dreier will be in the CROSSFIRE chatroom right after tonight's show. You can join in by logging onto cnn.com/crossfire, and we'll be back after this break to discuss, to determine whether this was a rigged vote by the Democrats.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. John Ashcroft tonight is attorney general of the United States thanks to one of the closest confirmation votes by the Senate in the nation's history. But was this a serious fight or was the vote rigged for effect?

We're asking Democratic Senator Patty Murray of the state of Washington and Republican Congressman David Dreier of California, who's in Richmond, Virginia tonight -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Congressman Dreier, I hate to raise any unpleasantness on such a happy day for you...

DREIER: Then don't. Then don't.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESS: But I will, I will anyhow.

DREIER: Please don't.

PRESS: As "The Washington Post" reports this morning, that John Ashcroft may have broken federal election law because his PAC that he controls gave a gift worth $116,000 to his Senate campaign, and federal law says the max you can give is 10 grand.

Congressman, isn't it kind of embarrassing to be naming someone as attorney general who may have broken the law?

DREIER: Well, I'm glad you said may have.

PRESS: Well...

DREIER: "The Washington Post" made that statement. We don't know that that is the case. And as we know very well, all kinds of charges are leveled on a regular basis.

I'm convinced that John Ashcroft is not responsible for going out and making illegal campaign contributions. But if the question is raised, I'm sure that it will be answered and there will be a satisfactory answer. I mean, I think that what we've got here, Bill, is a case of this continued attempt to undermine the success that George Bush has been having in reaching out to Democrats, meeting with the Black Caucus, giving the minority leader in the House, Dick Gephardt, a birthday cake, doing the kinds of things -- which are unprecedented. I mean, he's held these meetings. He's done an extremely good job.

And there are a lot of people, and my colleague, Patty Murray, is now chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and they want to look to the next election, they want the prospect of retaking the Senate and all. And so these kinds of things will come out.

PRESS: Well, here's what -- here's what gets me, congressman. Look, I mean, there are questions about Al Gore using the phone at the White House, there are questions about Bill Clinton's coffees. You've got House investigation, Senate investigation, demands for a call for an independent counsel, Janet Reno's going to be impeached if she doesn't appoint an independent counsel. John Ashcroft may have broken the law, and you just say, ah, no big deal, he's going to be attorney general, let's move on.

DREIER: Did I say that? Bill -- Bill...

PRESS: Happy, happy.

DREIER: Bill, do you want to roll the tape back? That's not what I said. I said I'm sure that there will be an answer.

PRESS: But it wasn't even raised, it wasn't even raised in the Senate debate today as issue. Why not?

DREIER: Well, I don't know. I wasn't on the floor of the Senate. I'm happy to say that I'm here in Virginia.

No, I mean, I think that there will be an answer to the question that has been put out there. And I'm convinced that John Ashcroft did not do anything wrong myself. But there will be people, Patty Murray and others, who will probably raise the question.

NOVAK: Senator Murray...

DREIER: But I just think that again this is geared toward getting at George Bush, and he's going to be -- he's been so extraordinarily successful.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me take up that point that David Dreier makes. There was really not an attempt to defeat this nomination. There was no pressure put on the senators who voted aye. When Senator Kennedy talked about a filibuster, Senator Daschle, the leader, said no, no. This was -- there was a lot of talk about shots over the bow.

This was an attempt at neutering John Ashcroft and destroying his reputation, his effectiveness. Wasn't that it was all about?

MURRAY: No, no, I disagree. I think this was a vote that each one of us took really seriously. We were going to confirm -- our vote would confirm a man as attorney general. Many of us were very concerned about his -- our ability to trust, our ability to know whether he would be fair. Many of the issues that were raised I won't rehash.

But you know know, he is attorney general now. He's already been sworn in. And now, he is going to have to show everybody in this country that he is truly a man of word and will follow through on what he said in the hearings.

DREIER: That's a very good point, and I totally agree with you on that, Patty. I think it's important to realize that we are moving forward and we have to recognize that John Ashcroft is going to impress people just as George Bush has, and I'm convinced he is going to be a superb attorney general.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me -- let me raise a point about why so many, like 42 Democrats voted against him. I want you to listen, Senator Murray, to a Democratic senator who is just as liberal, maybe more liberal than you are, if that's possible, and has been here a lot longer. And he voted for the confirmation. Let's listen to what Chris Dodd has to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: If his flaws loom large, it is at least in part because they have been aired and examined in the magnifying light of public life. And while I will not excuse these flaws, particularly in his treatment of others, public officials, I will not engage in the same form of payback politics that seems to have been growing currency in our time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Isn't that truly a more prudent position for the Democrats to take than the 42 mean-spirited senators who said no?

MURRAY: That was not a mean-spirited vote. None of the 42 senators that voted against Senator Ashcroft voted against him because they thought he was evil or they didn't like him. They voted against him because they felt so strongly that the attorney general of this country has to be the people's attorney general and they wanted somebody that they thought...

NOVAK: What about Senator Dodd's comments?

MURRAY: ... sent a message to the country that was one of trust and not fear.

And I have a great deal of respect for Senator Dodd. He is a very good friend of mine. And he has a history and a background that brings him to this perspective that he has that he is entitled to. And his words show you that this was not some kind of concerted to have 42 votes against this nominee. These votes came personally.

PRESS: Congressman Dreier... DREIER: George Bush has said -- said throughout the campaign that he wanted to change the tone in Washington, and I'm ecstatic to see Chris Dodd on-board in support of that change-the-tone message.

PRESS: Well, pardon me. Pardon me. How did he change the tone in Washington, by nominating John Ashcroft?

DREIER: Well...

PRESS: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) man who has further divided this Senate, as Arlen Specter said on the show here, than anyone has in the last 10 years. Change the tone?

DREIER: Bill, let me just tell you: what happened was we saw a number of groups very frustrated over the success that George Bush has been having. So what is it they did: They decided to demonize John Ashcroft.

The fact is George Bush has changed the tone by reaching out, meeting with the Black Caucus, having this wide range of -- he's going to be going to the Democrats' retreat and speaking to them. Unprecedented. This kind of thing has never happened before.

PRESS: Over my dead body.

DREIER: And you know what, Bill, that is changing the tone in Washington. And I know you're trying to keep the tone in the gutter and you're doing a pretty good job of it. But Bob Novak and Chris Dodd and...

(CROSSTALK)

... we're trying to change the tone in Washington.

PRESS: I just want to point out -- I just want to point out, isn't it true, congressman, that it's actions, not words, that matter? And no matter how often...

DREIER: Absolutely.

PRESS: ... no matter how often George Bush says, I'm a uniter, not a divider, after this battle, after this vote, people are going to remember John Ashcroft, and those words will always ring hollow. Isn't that true?

DREIER: So what you're saying, Bill, that after the appointment of Colin Powell, the first African-American as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, Mel Martinez as HUD secretary -- I mean, the fact is...

PRESS: We know the list.

MURRAY: David...

DREIER: ... this is a Cabinet which has gotten praise from Democrats and Republicans alike. MURRAY: I know you're not a member of the Senate, so you were not there when many of these came through, but I find it kind of ironic that the Republicans on the first vote that was divisive on a nominee or any kind of person coming through the Senate all of sudden it's because we're throwing the stuff out there.

I remember Bill Lann Lee and I remember Ronnie White the number of nominations that never came...

DREIER: I will tell you, Patty, I was there...

PRESS: All right, we -- I hate to cut you off, congressman.

(CROSSTALK)

DREIER: ... and nominated -- I was there and introduced two Californians for nominations who had strong bipartisan support.

PRESS: I have to cut you off, but you know I've got to do it. Thank you -- thank you, David Dreier for joining us from Richmond. Thank you, Patty Murray, for being here. Senator, congressman.

And Bob Novak and I will have a final closing comment about John Ashcroft, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Don't forget, Congressman Dreier in the chat room right after the show, cnn.com/crossfire.

Bob, I'd be lying if I said I didn't care what happened today. I hate losing. But you know what, the 42 means that Democrats will control any Bush nominees to the Supreme Court or to the federal court. That was worth fighting for.

NOVAK: The Supreme Court nominees will not have a paper trail like John Ashcroft. They'll be too smart for you fellows to divide. And John Ashcroft, I hope, is a tough attorney general. He's not intimidated by the likes of you, Bill. And I hope he cracks down on the corrupt labor unions and cleans up the corruption inside the Justice Department, which we all know exists there under Janet Reno.

PRESS: Look, the problem is we don't know. John Ashcroft made so many promises in his confirmation hearings he's never going to be able to carry them out.

You know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) it was John Ashcroft, he got a taste of his own medicine, Bob.

NOVAK: It's vindictive.

PRESS: Unfortunately it wasn't fatal.

NOVAK: You're a vindictive little fellow.

PRESS: No, I'm not. I just say... NOVAK: You are. You are.

PRESS: ... what goes around comes around. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. G. Gordon Liddy in "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:30.

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

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