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Senate Judicial Committee Panel Examines Ashcroft's Record on Social Issues

Aired January 18, 2001 - 2:44 p.m. ET

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

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you away from the Gale Norton hearing for just a moment and take you back to the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings into John Ashcroft's nomination to be attorney general are resuming. The next panel expected to talk about his record on race and civil rights. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: ... Is that an accurate description of what really happened?

HARRIET WOODS (D), FRM. MISSOURI LT. GOVERNOR: It is not, Senator. And I think it's one of the most troubling aspects to me of this nomination, because there is -- as you well know and pointed out, there is no more serious challenge to this country than reaching a resolution on some of these lingering issues related to race. And the fact that he would say that he was just appearing as attorney general but protecting the state from liability, because there was no liability -- the history of Missouri -- at one time, it was a crime to educate black children. The ministers had to take them out on boats in the river. There was a constitutional amendment requiring segregation of schools.

I served in the state senate at a time, and frankly I think it lingers to this day, when there was resistance to providing more funds to the urban schools. So for these families to find no resolution to a good education for their children at either the state or local level, neither one of them really willing to assume the responsibility for remedying what was a long, clear injustice to African-American children was what brought on the federal suit.

And to have the attorney general of the state -- not even seemingly who was born and raised in Missouri, who told us, well, yes, he knew about this, you know, 1954 decision when the black child came into his class, that he was not conscious that there was a state liability, really is worrisome because that could be transferred to the federal level: no liability, no responsibility. And I -- you can tell, I'm really appalled.

KENNEDY: Well, I think, in fairness to the senator, he'd indicated that the state was not involved -- we've had contrary testimony to that in the holdings of the court. This went on for some eight years as he was attorney general, and eight years as governor, am I correct, that this issue was not settled?

WOODS: It not only went on, but as you know -- and I certainly don't want to take up all the time and I know you're going to have other testimony from other witnesses -- but even to the extent of impeding or trying to block efforts at voluntary resolution, which you would think he would be happy about, in terms of if the local districts, if the state could assist a voluntary remedy, and if the courts themselves chastised the attorney general for foot-dragging and for getting in the way, I mean, it seems to me this is more than just routine representation of a state.

KENNEDY: On another issue that I raised with Senator Ashcroft on the first day, he defended his veto of two voter registration bills by citing support for his action from a few Democrats in the city of St. Louis. That's the situation where there was the one piece of legislation that provided the voting registrars for St. Louis, and then he vetoed on that, because he said that that was only targeted in one city. And then, legislature, as I understand it, passed legislation to encompass the whole state; he vetoed that, as well.

The results have been that it was a very dramatic falling off of black registered voters during that period of time, when other groups, like the League of Women Voters, were out registering in the county itself surrounding the city. I believe there were 1,500 active registrars out in the area just surrounding the city.

And for special reasons, that you know, this is really a function of the governor. The governor has this responsibility under -- as I understand -- under Missouri law.

Could you make any comment on that? What was happening at that time and what kind of value do you give to that?

WOODS: Well, I sometimes wear the hat as a member of the League of Women Voters. But what you're pointing out -- I was interested in your inquiry, because it is quite true that in the suburban areas, the more affluent citizens, the Board of Election Commissioners did deputize the members of the League of Women Voters and other groups to make it easier to register. This was not true in the city of St. Louis where the majority of African-Americans live.

Now, the point, you really brought this out, but what it seemed to me needed to be brought out with -- Senator Ashcroft said, well, he checked with the local Board of Election Commission. And the local Democratic -- white Democratic elected official said, "We aren't interested in doing this."

WOODS: Everyone from Missouri, from the St. Louis, understands that by tradition there is the white south side in local politics and the black north side. And I can assure you that by tradition, by simple practical politics, the white Democratic politicians on the south side are no more eager than Republicans to get a big turnout, but because of its impact on local elections from the African- Americans on the north side.

So to say they agree, it's a little like saying that Eisenhower -- President Eisenhower called up the politicians in Arkansas and said, "Hey, do you want us to just come in and do something about getting these kids into the schools?" And when they say, "No," say, "Oh, OK, we won't do it."

That was not his role. His role should have been looking out to make it easier for people of whatever background to be able to exercise their vote and not to reach agreements with politicians about keeping them from doing so. There's no reason why there couldn't have deputizing in the city of St. Louis.

KENNEDY: As a result of that failure, is it your understanding that there were hundreds of thousands of eligible black voters that were effectively denied...

WOODS: Well, I would say they certainly were...

KENNEDY: ... the opportunity to register and participating in the votes?

WOODS: It was certainly a discouragement for thousands of African-American voters, who had to go to a much greater length to do what could be done easily in more affluent areas.

KENNEDY: If I could, I'd like to ask Gloria Feldt on Senator Ashcroft's extreme position against contraception. He supported the Human Life Amendment which prohibited the use of common forms of contraception, tried to stop the federal employees health benefit plans when covering the costs of contraceptions approved by FDA, including the commonly-used birth control pills and IUD. He has used the power of high office to block against family planning services.

Let me ask you, would you tell the committee how much impact, if any, the attorney general's office could have on the right to access to contraceptives? What is your reaction, given the assure that you had received yesterday, and the power of the attorney general, what lies ahead in terms of the potential danger of actions that would limit those contraceptives to women?

GLORIA FELDT, PRESIDENT, PLANNED PARENTHOOD: Thank you, Senator.

FELDT: Just to clarify the basis of this point, the medical, scientific definition of pregnancy is implantation. The version of the so-called Human Life Amendment that Senator Ashcroft has supported throughout his entire career is a version which would outlaw all abortion. And it defines, quote, "life" meaning personhood, giving the legal status of personhood upon fertilization.

What that means is that most of the methods of birth control that we are accustomed to having available to us, such as many kinds of birth control pills, the IUD, injectables and so forth, are thought of by Senator Ashcroft as abortifacients. And that is confirmed in the "Dear Colleague" letter that he signed to members of the Senate in opposition to federal employees' insurance coverage of contraception in their plans.

As attorney general, I think that his interpretation of when personhood -- I mean the legal status of personhood begins would be a very major factor in interpreting and crafting and advising.

But there are other more, sort of, not as obvious areas where his interpretation could have an impact. For example, he could be asked by the Department of Health and Human Services to give some guidance with respect to family planning programs, Title X of the Public Health Services Act, which provides a wide array of -- in fact, all medically approved birth control methods to low-income women who are primarily uninsured women, as well.

So it is not inconceivable that the attorney general could be asked to define what is a contraceptive under this program. And in so doing, render most of the commonly used, and by the way, most effective means of contraception, no longer usable within the family planning program.

Similarly, emergency contraception, which can be taken within 72 hours after intercourse and can prevent a pregnancy from occurring, could be given that same approach. And emergency contraception has been found by researchers to -- if all women of reproductive age had access to it, emergency contraception could reduce the unintended pregnancy rate and the abortion rate by one-half. So ironically, the outcome could be actually an increase, ultimately, in the rate of abortion because of a lack of birth control access.

Senator Kennedy, I wonder if I just might add...

KENNEDY: I think my time -- I'd like to, but I think my time is up, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: We will go 10 minutes to the senator from Pennsylvania and then five minutes to everybody else, because the senator from Massachusetts had 10 minutes.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you. I have other commitments. This is obviously a tough day and I appreciate...

MESERVE: You have been hearing the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into John Ashcroft; discussion this afternoon of his record on matters relating to race in the state of Missouri, also, his position on abortion and birth control -- both of those central issues to the nomination of John Ashcroft.

These hearings are going to continue throughout the afternoon. CNN will be monitoring this hearing; also the hearings of Gale Norton -- she's the nominee to be interior secretary, another controversial choice. Those hearings likely to get firing. We'll be bringing you news on those -- bits and pieces on those -- but we're going to take a break, and after that: "TALKBACK LIVE" here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to the continue now, our live coverage of the confirmation hearing. This, day three of John Ashcroft, the former senator. Speaking now: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

SPECTER: passionate activism, to use your terms, Ms. Feldt, on that subject.

And the Republicans, who have been appointed in Pennsylvania, have been noted nationally for balance and moderation, if I may use that word.

When it is said that there's an expectation that the president would appoint a conservative, that really is an understatement, because of the way the political process works and the way the primary process works.

I spent the better part of the year seeking the Republican nomination for 1996 fully aware of the virtual impossibility of it, but believing that there ought to be a centrist view within the party. And being the only pro-choice Republican in a large field, with about 50 percent of the Republicans being pro-choice, it seemed to me that there was an opportunity.

I was the only candidate to favor retaining the Department of Education. At least we won that one, although I didn't win it, but there still is a Department of Education.

But I point this out, because of the concerns I have about having some balance within the Republican Party. We sought to change the platform, to take out the litmus test and to take out the provision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And President-elect Bush did make commitments on both of those lines, but they weren't as binding as a platform change, in my opinion. And I tried to do that. Not successfully.

And we do have very firm commitments on the record from Senator Ashcroft that he's not going to move to overturn Roe v. Wade by a constitutional amendment. And the fact is, he couldn't if he tried. We've had a Republican Congress for six years and now going into eight years, and nobody's even made an effort. At least not a serious effort.

And there's a firm commitment that he's not going to use a litmus test. And with the 50-50 split I think that's an enforceable commitment, both as to the president-elect and as to Senator Ashcroft, if he is, in fact, confirmed.

So that my question goes to the point about trying to get centrist Republicans to adopt the Feldt doctrine of passionate activism. And maybe even making a heretical suggestion that some Democrats might want to become Republicans to provide some of the Javits and Hines and Scott and Arlen Specter point of view. There are some places where people are assigned to both parties, so that there's a voice.

And if you have to give credit to the activists who have dominated the party, the Republican Party. They've done the work, they've been the passionate activists. And we do have a political system, and there is a way to make a modification of it. So that when we come to a hearing of this sort -- and I haven't hidden it. I've wrote a New York Times article saying that -- perhaps, a little presumptuously -- saying that the president-elect ought to appoint centrists. But that's the kind of balance we need. But if there is more of a base in the primary process, where a very small number control the outcome and nominate the president, there'd be a change.

Ms. Michelman, you're a practical -- you're a pragmatist. I know that because I see you working out in the gym with some regularity; we go to the same health club.

How about getting some people who have your passionate activism to become Republicans, to influence the political process so that you have a voice in who the Cabinet officers are, even attorney general?

KATE MICHELMAN, PRESIDENT, NARAL: I couldn't agree with you more, Senator, that it is so important to recognize that the freedom to choose is not a matter of partisan politics. It's a fundamental right of women, and it is a fundamental right that guarantees women equality.

The reason that I mention Brown v. Board of Education in my comments earlier on was because there were signature decisions along the way. As those of us in society who were not guaranteed freedoms and equality by the constitution, we had to struggle for those rights. And Brown v. Board was an essential milestone along the way to full emancipation, full protection, full equality for African-Americans.

So too, Roe v. Wade, as Justice Blackmun I thought so eloquently put it, was necessary as women continued their journey toward full equality and full emancipation.

SPECTER: Ms. Michelman, I think...

MICHELMAN: So it is an issue that rises above and transcends. The problem we have here is that -- I agree with you -- we need more Republicans -- and I have tremendous admiration for the fact that you did run, and I wish that you had been the nominee on the other side.

But that is a long-term effort that we have to engage in -- both short term and long term...

SPECTER: Ms. Michelman, let me interrupt you because the time is fleeting. You said the other side; how about joining my side?

(LAUGHTER)

MICHELMAN: Joining your side?

(LAUGHTER)

SPECTER: Yes, how about joining the Republican side?

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH R), UTAH: Don't be so shocked here. I've never seen such a shocked look on your face.

(LAUGHTER) SPECTER: You don't have to convince Senator Kennedy.

MICHELMAN: I am an independent, myself. I think with all kidding aside here, though.

SPECTER: I'm not kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHELMAN: The issue before us is whether we are going to have an attorney general that will respect, defend and protect women's established constitutional rights.

While we work to bring more pro-choice Republicans into political positions, we have got to start now making sure that we don't have an attorney general who is a pathway to overturning Roe v. Wade.

SPECTER: Ms. Michelman, I have to interrupt you because time is fleeting.

MICHELMAN: The human life amendment is a little bit of a straw man here, with all due respect.

SPECTER: I have to interrupt because time is fleeting, and I'm not doing very well with you. I want to turn to Ms. Feldt.

How about joining up Ms. Feldt? How about being passionate to try to influence the other party, make it your party, and have a place at the table?

FELDT: Senator, as you may know, Planned Parenthood has a very large and very active Republicans for Choice group that is forming chapters faster than you can imagine all over the country and has been active, actually, for some years.

I just want to tell you a little bit about my own personal experience. You know, I ran the affiliate in Arizona for 18 years. That affiliate was started by Peggy Goldwater. And Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself, is the person who taught me that a true conservative doesn't want the government telling people what to do about their own personal, private reproductive choices.

SPECTER: Barry Goldwater was the pre-eminent conservative who said keep the government off your backs, out of your pocketbooks, and out of your bedrooms.

Well, we need to get those Republicans in Planned Parenthood more active.

MICHELMAN: We're working on that, Senator.

SPECTER: Marcia Greenberger, how about it? Will you join us?

SPECTER: I'm recruiting.

MARCIA GREENBERGER, CO-PRESIDENT, NATIONAL WOMEN'S LAW CENTER: Well, the thing is, as I've been sitting and listening to this conversation, I, of course, come from an organization that is nonpartisan entirely, and I think the point of all of this is whether Republican or Democrat, for this Senate, for those who believe in Roe v. Wade, Senator Specter, as you do, the issue isn't what party you are, the issue is, what is your commitment to the principle of Roe v. Wade and other constitutional principles at stake here, including 14th Amendment equal protection, so important for women and minorities?

And I do want to say, respectfully, that you said if you were convinced that Senator Ashcroft would overturn Roe v. Wade, you wouldn't support him. And you cited a constitutional amendment and the litmus test points. And I wanted to go to those points precisely.

He can -- and I think our concern is that he will -- effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, not through a constitutional amendment which an attorney general, we agree, would not have a role in pursuing, but by defining Roe v. Wade, even if he says he's not trying to overturn it, in such a loose fashion that it is completely eviscerated.

And I want to say that when he came as the Missouri attorney general to this United States Senate in Washington in 1981 and testified in favor of the human life bill, bill, statute, not constitutional amendment, which Gloria Feldt described, and how extreme it was, he said, among the legal points he was making, that it was constitutional under Roe v. Wade.

When he has committed not to try to turn over Roe v. Wade -- and I want to question the commitment he even gave on that, because he said he didn't think it was an agenda, he didn't really commit even on that point -- what did he mean by Roe v. Wade if he could come and testify that Roe v. Wade was consistent with his human life bill that he was supporting? It is the antithesis of Roe v. Wade.

So for him to say that he won't seek as an activist agenda matter to overturn Roe v. Wade, but what he means by that is that he can still push for and find constitutional under Roe v. Wade as attorney general his human life bill, then I cannot help but say, the American women in this country and all of us who care about the right to choose were given no guarantee whatsoever by what we heard.

SPECTER: I appreciate your arguments, but it comes back to a place at the table, and a basis in the party. And I would urge you to consider what I have said so that you have a place at the big table. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Senator Hatch.

LEAHY: Mr. Susman?

I can imagine that the nurses in the case in 1983 that you mentioned earlier were very upset to be threatened to go to jail after then-Attorney General Ashcroft issued his opinion to stop nurses from providing access to contraceptives in family planning services.

My wife is a registered nurse. I can imagine what her reaction would be if somebody told her she would go to jail if she told a patient anything about contraceptives or family planning services. It sounds like something out of the 19th century.

Now how significant was this case, and the defeat of what then- Attorney General Ashcroft tried to do to the nurses in Missouri?

FRANK SUSMAN, GALLOP, JOHNSON AND NEUMAN, L.C.: I think you can tell the significance of the case by merely going to Exhibit A of the Supreme Court's decision, which list the amicus parties that were involved in this case who saw fit to have their voices from all around the country heard by the Missouri Supreme Court.

But you have to remember that they not only were going to charge the nurses with crimes of practicing medicine without a license, the state Board of Registration for the Healing Arts also told the physicians who were writing these standing orders that they would be charged with the crime of aiding and abetting the nurses by actually writing these orders.

This is a practice that was in effect in 40 of the 50 states at the time. It was not uncommon for advanced nurse practitioners to do all of these services that I listed. This was routine. This is the way of every county health department.

LEAHY: I want to make sure I understand this. Under then- Attorney General Ashcroft's position, the doctor wrote an order for a contraceptive. The nurse practitioner -- and they require a high level of skill and advanced degree and all -- they then were to pass out the contraceptive following the doctor' orders. They could both go to jail? SUSMAN: Oh absolutely. Practicing medicine without a license...

LEAHY: Kind of a 19th century...

SUSMAN: It caused panic because many of the doctors in these family planning clinics resigned just from the threat, resigned their practices.

LEAHY: So the concern that you were expressing this morning is not just the question of Senator Ashcroft's position on a woman's right to choose, but on a woman's right to choose, in this case, the method of contraception?

SUSMAN: Absolutely. That's all the case dealt with was contraception. I mean, family planning clinics -- and again, these were in the federally designated low-income counties, counties in which you did not have a single physician who would give prenatal or child birth services to women because of the low rate of pay established by the Missouri Medicaid program. Not a single physician in these counties offered services to indigent women. And this was the only outlet...

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And as we continue to follow the Ashcroft hearing, we're going to move away and listen in to Gale Norton, interior secretary nominee, as she begins to speak.

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