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Ashcroft Hearings: Sen. Feinstein Questions Attorney General Nominee

Aired January 17, 2001 - 10:47 a.m. ET

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

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: So much going on on Capitol Hill today. We want to take you right back up to the U.S. Senate, the Judiciary Committee there, Dianne Feinstein, the liberal Democrat from California, now getting her turn to quiz conservative John Ashcroft, the nominee to be attorney general.

Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: ... you voted against him was because he had the kind of intensity, and I quote, "that belongs to advocacy, but not with the kind of balance that belongs to administration." And I might respectfully say the same thing about you and your record.

I want to ask you some specific questions.

We talked in my office about a rape exception, and let me ask this question: Each year more than 32,000 women become pregnant as a result of rape, and approximately 50 percent of these end in abortion. Given the circumstances surrounding any rape, and certainly a resulting pregnancy, can you tell us why you feel there is no need for a rape exception to a ban on abortion?

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Thank you for your question. I understand these are deeply held views of yours, and my opposition to the aborting of unborn children has been a deeply held position of mine. I have sought in a number of ways through the years to reduce and to curtail the abortion of unborn children, and I understand that reasonable people do differ on these things. And that's been not only my understanding, but it has been a bases for my seeking to act in concert with people to cooperate to move toward a variety of different ways to reduce the level of aborting unborn children in our culture and in our society.

I have voted on numerous occasions for rape and incest exceptions and have voted for much broader exceptions than that. One time when I was governor I proposed that we only ban second abortions or abortions for second or third times. We banned abortions for racially mixed children, because people were wanting to abort a child for being racially mixed, or we banned abortions for sex selection. So I think it's fair to say that, over the course of my time in office and with the prerogatives I've had as a public servant, I have adopted a variety of positions to try and reduce the number of children being aborted.

I think it is also fair to say that I know the difference between an enactment role and an enforcement role. During my time as a public official, I have followed the law, and my following of the law has been clear.

When I was the attorney general of the state and pro-life groups wanted to insist on the publication of abortion statistics for particular hospitals and they asked that those abortion statistics be published, I went to the law, and a fair reading of the law didn't allow for the publication of those statistics which could have made those hospitals the target for pro-life forces. I followed the law in saying that I would not force the state or rule that the state had to publish those statistics when I think the law was clear that it shouldn't.

So I have a record of being able to say, I know the difference between enacting the law, the debate about the law. My involvement in legislation has, very frankly, in recognition of the law, centered, in real terms, on trying to do things like get parental consent and other things like that. Those are the kinds of things which I have focused on -- the ban on partial birth abortion.

But I will enforce the law fairly and aggressively, firmly. I know the difference between the debate over enacting the law and the responsibility of enforcing the law, and that's been clear in my record as a public servant.

FEINSTEIN: Will you maintain the Department of Justice's task force on violence against health care providers and give it the resources it needs to continue?

ASHCROFT: There have been, I think, three different task forces in this respect. I will maintain such task forces and provide them with the kind of resources that they need in order to make sure that we don't impair the constitutional right of women to access reproductive health services.

MESERVE: Senator John Ashcroft, saying he knows the difference between enacting the law and enforcing it. Being quizzed today about the interface of his religious beliefs and the laws of the land.

Bob Franken is up on Capitol Hill.

Bob, abortion, one of the real flashpoint issues for John Ashcroft, isn't it?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is and, as a matter of fact, we just heard an interesting answer. There has been quite a bit of criticism that he might not be expected to enforce the protection of abortion clinics, of reproductive clinics, whatever want to call them. He just said, and will of course be held to if he is confirmed, that he would provide the necessary resources to aggressively enforce those laws.

It was brought out earlier by Arlen Specter that the word "aggressively" is very important because the emphasis that an attorney general puts on the enforcement of which laws can determine whether in fact those laws are enforced to the satisfaction of those who believe in them.

Ashcroft is repeatedly using the word "aggressively." Now, of course, his critics will say that it's easy to use those words, and aggressive is one of those terms that can be in the eyes of the beholder, but he is making that point.

Now Dianne Feinstein, the liberal senator, or the Democratic senator from California, prefaced her questions by bringing up his opposition to Bill Lann Lee, who was the person who has had to struggle throughout the Clinton administration to be the attorney general in charge of civil rights.

And what he said during those confirmation hearings, Ashcroft, is a matter of criticism that Feinstein leveled at him, saying that he had, at the time, said that Lee had such views, of such intensity, that he did not have balance. And she said, I could say the same thing about you. He repeatedly says, as you pointed out, that as attorney general, he would enforce the laws. He knows the difference between the legislator or in enacting the law, or somebody who is enforcing the law -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: Bob, there has been some pointed questioning, but has any of this been fatal for John Ashcroft?

FRANKEN: Doesn't look like it. He is, obviously, very, very, well prepared. The only hope that the opponents have is that somehow they cause such an uproar with their questioning that there is pressure to change what seems to be the momentum to ultimately have his confirmation.

One of their problems is that they were so public with their criticism that they have not really came up with anything new, and they allowed him to be prepared for the questioning.

Now, tomorrow is the key day. That is the day when Ronnie White is going to testify, the African-American, Missouri state supreme court judge, who was denied confirmation by the Senate to be a federal judge, mainly because of the opposition of John Ashcroft, which has been bitterly criticized by civil rights groups.

MESERVE: But, Ashcroft, Bob, has been quite conciliatory in his approach to the questioning, and almost every time that a question is asked. he says: Thank you for that, even if it is intended to underline something that the questioner may view as negative in his record.

FRANKEN: What he needs to do here, in the view of his handlers, is to do everything he can to avoid looking like somebody who is extreme, somebody who is a fire breathing. And the more gently he can deliver his positions, of course, the less he looks like somebody who outrage particular people who have a belief in a particular point of view.

It's gotten quite sophisticated when you prepare somebody for an appearance before a committee. And the Bush transition team has spent an awful lot of time making sure that John Ashcroft is able to express his views and express his belief in the exception of those views, and not look like somebody who gets ruffled and extreme.

MESERVE: Bob Franken, thanks. And we will talk again.

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