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Though Ashcroft Confirmation Expected, Crucial Questions Expected at Confirmation Hearings

Aired January 16, 2001 - 1:02 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: When the dust settles, Ashcroft is expected to win the big office at the Justice Department, so why all the drama?

let's get some insights from CNN national correspondent Bob Franken, who's on Capitol Hill -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's going to be a battle because John Ashcroft goes in with the predisposition of the Senate to support one of its own, but the groups that have opposed him say that he has been such a doctrinaire conservative over his whole career, that he has opposite to the laws of the land in many cases, in area like abortion rights and gun control, and even civil rights, they say -- that he would not be able to be somebody who could be counted on to administer the laws as chief law enforcement officer in the land at the Justice Department as attorney general.

That is going to be the theme of this hearing, and each side is going to take its best shots. But it will start off in the usual slow Senate way. Each senator gets the chance to make his opening statement, pro or con, before we finally get to the introduction of the man in the center of all this, John Ashcroft, and his chance to state his case and then take what is expected to be an extremely tough grilling.

And that's just going to be the first witness. It's going to get even hairier than that as the week goes on. The main witness is expected to be the Missouri state Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, who was the first African-American justice on the state court, who was opposed by Ashcroft -- vehemently opposed by Ashcroft -- when he tried to become a federal judge and was not able to because of the Ashcroft opposition. Civil rights groups say that Ashcroft was playing racial politics; Ashcroft supporters say he was merely opposing a judge who he felt was being soft on criminals -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Bob, is he expected to be confirmed because Republicans are expected to unite behind him?

FRANKEN: Well, Republicans say that they're going to unite behind him, and if you were betting right now, you'd have to say that the odds are quite strongly in favor of the ultimate Ashcroft confirmation. but there is such a fight over this, there is so much opposition to Ashcroft out there, that there is the possibility they will somehow be able to successfully tar him as a man who is an extremist who should not be attorney general. It's a long shot, but it's not something that is a done deal yet.

ALLEN: Bob Franken, on Capitol Hill, we'll see you again throughout the afternoon -- thanks, Bob.

We have a desk full of people in our Washington bureau just itching to weigh in on all of this, so let's turn things over to CNN's Frank Sesno and give them their chance -- Frank.

FRANK SESNO, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Natalie, thanks very much.

Well, if you are keeping score and you are looking for the forecast of political hurricanes in the season to come, today is the first barometric reading. What is going to happen on Capitol Hill will give a good indication of this very divided Senate and this narrowly elected president are going to get along.

Joining me here: Tucker Carlson and Bill Press from CNN's "SPIN ROOM" and "CROSSFIRE" fame.

Gentlemen, what are you both going to be looking for?

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, CNN'S "SPIN ROOM": Well, I mean, at the ferocity of the attacks. Both sides have really just thrown caution to the wind on this. I mean you saw the head of handgun control compare Ashcroft's views to those of Timothy McVeigh. You had the Republicans come out with Medgar Evers' brother to come out with a statement that no, John Ashcroft is not a racist.

So the rhetoric has really been over the top; I think it's going to be cooler in the Senate.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST, CNN'S "SPIN ROOM": Frank, I'll be watching, looking to see how the Bush people perform and how the Democrats perform. It's a test, as you indicated, it's a giant test, and the first big test for both sides. I mean the Bush team having walked away from Linda Chavez too early now really have to make a stand with John Ashcroft. It's going to be interesting to see that they fight back as hard as the opposition is going to fight his nomination.

You know, the Democrats have a chance in this divided Senate to show us how they're going to perform, whether they're going to be tough, whether they're going to be -- whether they're going to roll over. And I think it's particularly a test for any Democrat running for election -- reelection in 2002 or planning to run for president in 2004.

SESNO: This is man who, as we just heard Bob Franken say, may well be painted -- or opponents may try to paint his as an extremist. But as those who are helping to handle his nominate, people in the Bush transition camp point out, this is a guy who's been the attorney general of the state of Missouri, he has been twice elected overwhelmingly as the governor of Missouri, he's been elected as a senator, he's served as the head of the National Governor's Association. Is he an extremist in any fashion?

CARLSON: Well, the core argument is that he's a very serious Christian, he has very strong believes that come out of his religious faith, and therefore he'll be unable to administer laws that he disagrees with. It's a ludicrous argument at it core, and it's going to be very tough...

SESNO: What's a ludicrous argument: to administer laws that he disagrees with?

CARLSON: That's right, the idea that you can't be attorney general, you can't be in charge of administering laws, if you have strong beliefs.

SESNO: You're saying he can?

CARLSON: The argument the Democrats are making is that he can't. But the problem with making this argument in public in the Senate is that at some point you have to make explicit the case that the problem with this guy is that he's too observant a Christian, and that's a very hard argument to make in public.

SESNO: Bill, there are some that are actually saying that he is a victim of religious profiling. That by trying to target or make an issue out of his religious brief at the core of his being that that's just as outrageous as racial profiling.

PRESS: I don't think anybody's going to hold John Ashcroft's religion against him, but when you do make the statement in the United States what makes us different is we have no king but Jesus that does lead one to question whether or not he recognizes that this is not a Christian nation.

But I want to come back to your initial question, about where -- whether he is an extremist. I think -- look at it the other way: If there were someone as far left nominated by Al Gore to be attorney general, John Ashcroft would be leading the nomination.

Whether he's an extremist or not, he's certainly as far right as you can get in the Republican party, and he's proven that on several issues. And those are the issues -- on race relations or on abortion or on separation of church and state -- where he's going to be questioned, and he has to prove to this Senate committee and to the other senators that he will be -- he will fairly enforce all the laws of the land.

Gentlemen, if they are on time, they'll get under way about 22 minutes from now.

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