Ashcroft hearings conclude; Republicans predict confirmation as attorney general
Senate to vote on Powell, Rumsfeld, O'Neill on Saturday
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A frenzy of confirmation activity continued on Capitol Hill Friday, as lawmakers wrapped up hearings on Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary-designee Gale Norton, and continued interviews with two more of President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet choices.
CNN's Jonathan Karl says U.S. Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft is expected to be confirmed next week (January 19)
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The full day of hearings before various committee panels came as the Senate prepared for full floor votes on three key Cabinet selections immediately after Bush is sworn in as the nation's 43rd president Saturday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously endorsed Donald Rumsfeld for Defense Secretary, paving the way for a full vote on his expected nomination Saturday afternoon, along with those of Secretary of State-designee Colin Powell and Treasury Department candidate Paul O'Neill.
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will return to the familiar role of majority leader after Bush and Cheney take the oath of office, said that all three selections will likely by approved by a voice vote.
Confirmation hearings for the three crucial administration posts stood in stark contrast to those held for Attorney-General designee John Ashcroft, billed as the most contentious in more than a decade.
Before wrapping up four days of hearings Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from more than 20 witnesses who testified about Ashcroft's character and extensive record on a host of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, law enforcement and crime victims.
On Friday, the committee rehashed arguments about Ashcroft's role as Missouri's attorney general during the 1980s, in opposing federal mandates on school desegregation on grounds that the plans were too costly and infringed upon state sovereignty.
"In 1984, when he ran for governor, he described voluntary desegregation plans as an outrage against human decency. It sounds to me like his objections were more than fiscal," said Bill Taylor, a lawyer in the St. Louis desegregation case.
But Robert Woodson of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise argued the black community has disagreed with forced busing plans.
"You need to listen to the full range of opinion in black America and not just the, quote, civil rights leaders," Woodson said. "I know this man. I have worked with this man. He is strong on civil rights. He is a just man."
Despite three days of tough questioning from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and other panel Democrats, there was no sign that Republican support for Ashcroft, a former senator from Missouri, would break. Democratic leaders also signaled they would not attempt to stall the nomination on the floor of the evenly split Senate through a filibuster or other procedural tactics.
Although battered and bruised by the hearing, Republicans confidently predicted Ashcroft will win Senate confirmation as early as next week.
"We have heard people from both sides (and) it is time to bring this to closure," said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Much of Thursday's proceedings were a rehash of the battle over Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White's 1998 nomination to a federal district judgeship. White, an African-American, told the Senate Judiciary Committee he did not believe Ashcroft opposed his nomination out of racism -- but he said Ashcroft had misrepresented his record to rally fellow Republicans to oppose his ascension to a U.S. judgeship.
"I was surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me 'pro-criminal' with a tremendous bent towards criminal activity -- that he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order," White said. "I deeply resent those baseless misrepresentations."
White's critics most often cite his dissenting opinion in a Missouri death penalty case in which he recommended a new trial for a man convicted of murdering a Montineau County sheriff's deputy and the wife of the county sheriff. White said he supported death sentences in most cases brought before him, but Ashcroft used that opinion to paint him as being "soft on crime."
Supporters denied accusations that Ashcroft's opposition to White, who is African American, was rooted in racial politics. They have pointed to Ashcroft's votes in support of 26 other African-American judicial nominees. But Democrats also argued Ashcroft torpedoed White's nomination in order to create an issue for his 2000 re-election campaign against the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who appointed White to the Missouri high court.
Carnahan died in a plane crash before the election, but defeated Ashcroft posthumously: His widow, Jean Carnahan, was appointed to take the seat.
Norton disavows 'right to pollute' comments
Interior Secretary-designee Gale Norton, Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tommy Thompson and Office of Management and Budget Director-designee Mitchell Daniels Jr. also faced hearings Friday in various Senate committees.
Norton, a former attorney general from Colorado, faces nearly as much opposition to her nomination as Ashcroft does. A number of environmental groups have mounted a television and radio campaign denouncing her as a candidate who would put various business and local interests above federal land protections and environmental standards.
During the second and final day of hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Norton again pledged to strike a fair balance between environmental concerns and economic development.
Interior Secretary-designee Gale Norton
Bush's controversial plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling was a main topic of debate. Republicans on the panel praised the potential move as a means to offset the heavy import of foreign oil, while Democrats decried the potentially devastating impact it could have on the area's pristine wilderness.
Seeking to dismiss claims that policies she has supported would do harm to the nearly half a million acres of public lands under Interior Department jurisdiction, Norton declared herself a "a passionate conservationist" on Thursday. She also disavowed as poorly worded comments that she made at a 1989 symposium that "we might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute."
"The idea of a right to pollute is not something that I support," Norton said.
But Norton criticized President Clinton and current Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for issuing executive proclamations protecting millions of acres of public land, saying Western lawmakers and local residents were left out of the decision-making process.
On Friday, Norton also said that she had pursued polluters during her eight years as Colorado's top law enforcer, putting some in prison and suing to block a bankrupt mine operator from abandoning efforts to fight water contamination.
The panel's top Democrat and temporary chairman, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, predicted that Norton would get all 50 Republican votes and "some Democratic votes as well" when the full Senate votes on her nomination. The panel must first endorse the choice before a full Senate vote.
Some Democrats said they were encouraged by Norton's answers, but remain undecided on whether they will ultimately support her.
"My sense is you've made significant shifts in position," Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told Norton on Friday.
Abortion, Medicare take center stage at Thompson hearings
Thompson, Bush's choice to head the department of Health and Human Services, also appeared for a second day of confirmation hearings -- but before a different committee. Thompson, who was queried by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, appeared Friday before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Gov. Tommy Thompson
Welfare, abortion and a patients' bill of rights were top concerns of panel Democrats who questioned Thompson on Friday. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland wanted answers why the incoming Bush administration dismissed Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Jane Henney on Thursday.
Henney, who oversaw the FDA's controversial approval of the abortion pill known as RU-486, was also a popular commissioner among many industry and patient groups.
"This is not the way to begin. This is truly not the way to begin," said Mikulski. "...I hope the dismissal of Jane Henney is not the future of a battleground. We cannot politicize the FDA."
Thompson responded that all political appointees were asked to submit their resignations but promised that he would review Henney's to be sure the decision about who will serve as his FDA commissioner is "based on merit."
Another contentious issue Thompson is likely to face is federal funding for stem cell research. It has shown promise for treating diseases such as Alzheimer's, but also enraged anti-abortion activists because it uses cells harvested from discarded embryos.
Although some fear that the Bush administration will move to curb such studies, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa commended Thompson for recently applauding pioneering stem cell research by University of Wisconsin scientists.
"Exciting research demands strong leadership," Harkin said.
Appearing Thursday before the Finance Committee, Thompson said he will promote Bush's campaign plan to create a prescription drug program under Medicare for poor senior citizens. But he said he'd be willing to work with Congress in developing a plan that provides drugs to all seniors and overhauls the program.
It appeared smooth sailing through the Senate for the widely popular Wisconsin governor, elected to the first of four terms in 1986.
"In a very short while I'll be calling you 'secretary,' and very enthusiastically," said Finance Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana.
CNN.com Writer Mike Ferullo and Reuters contributed to this report.