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Sens. Lieberman, Shelby Address Senate in Debate Over Ashcroft Nomination

Aired February 1, 2001 - 10:30 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you back live to the U.S. Senate, the discussion getting a little heated right now, talking about John Ashcroft as attorney general. The discussion now, the debate going back and forth between Sen. Nickles of Oklahoma and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Let's go ahead and listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. DON NICKLES (R), OKLAHOMA: ... was law enforcement personnel. And at this time, the only law enforcement letters we saw were in opposition. If we had the letter from the FOP and saying, hey, confirm him, maybe that would have made a difference. Probably would have. Maybe if the sheriff organizations would have got their letter out before the Judiciary Committee had a vote, it might have made a big difference in the Judiciary Committee.

And so timing is important. The reason why we had the vote at the time, I believe, is because our colleagues on the Democrat side were clamoring for a vote. And so I don't look at that as an ambush. I -- maybe that vote should have been delayed so we could have had a little thorough -- more thorough discussion of, why are these law enforcement groups against him? maybe some might be for him, give him time to enter into that debate. that didn't happen. I wasn't involved in scheduling the vote.

But my point is, I didn't feel like he was ambushed. I did say, somewhat unique, my 20 years in the Senate is the only time I can remember national law enforcement agencies coming up and saying, vote against this person. And because they did, because they contacted members of the Senate, I think that's the reason why Judge White went down.

Be that as it may, there's lots of other issues dealing with Sen. Ashcroft. This is one that I know something about. And, again, I think John Ashcroft is one outstanding individual, more than qualified to be attorney general of the United States. And I'm absolutely confident that when he's confirmed, we'll look back and say, he was an outstanding -- is an outstanding attorney general for the United States of America.

Mr. President, I yield the floor and I suggest (OFF-MIKE).

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: The clerk will please call the role. UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Mr. President, I (OFF-MIKE) to call the forum to dispense with.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Without objection.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Mr. President...

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: The senator from Vermont is recognized.

LEAHY: Mr. President, just so the record is straight, these law enforcement officers (INAUDIBLE) there is no contact with anybody on this side. Sen. Ashcroft had said that the reason he stopped Judge White was at the urging of law enforcement groups. But then subsequent press reports, and then the reports by the law enforcement officials themselves and Sen. Ashcroft's own testimony at his hearing, contradicted that and said that he had instigated and orchestrated the group's opposition to Ronnie White. I'm not suggesting that Ronnie White was defeated because he was an African American, but it would be hard for anybody not to know he wasn't insofar as that was mentioned at great length in the debate the day before and the debate just before the vote by those who were on the floor and debating this.

I notice -- I said that I notice we're into the time of the senator from Connecticut and I yield the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Under the previous order, the time until 10:45 a.m. shall be under the control of the senator from Connecticut, Mr. Lieberman. The chair so recognized the senator.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: I thank the chair, Mr. President.

Mr. President, I have known John Ashcroft for almost 40 years as a college classmate, a fellow state attorney general and a colleague in the Senate. Throughout that time, our views on important issues have quite often diverged, sometimes widely. But I have never had reason to doubt his sincerity or his integrity.

It strikes me in this regard that the often-noted and sometimes derided notion that senators judge their colleagues more leniently than outsiders missing an important point. It is not that we reflexively defer to our former colleagues, it is instead that we as human beings find it tremendously difficult to pass judgment on those we have worked with and know well.

And it is because I have known Sen. Ashcroft for so long that I find the conclusion I have reached today, which is to oppose his nomination, so frankly awkward and uncomfortable. But that is where my review of the record regarding this nomination and my understanding of the Senate's responsibility under the advice and consent clause lead me.

Throughout my tenure in the Senate, I have voted on hundreds of presidential nominees. In each case, I have adhered to a broadly, deferential standard of review. As I explained in my first speech on the Senate floor in which I offered my reasons for opposing the nomination of former Sen. John Tower to serve as defense secretary, the history of the debates at the Constitutional Convention make clear that the president is entitled to the benefit of the doubt in his appointments. The question I concluded, then, I should ask myself in considering nominees is not whether I would have chosen the nominee, but rather whether the president's choice is acceptable for the job in question.

That does not mean, of course, that the Senate should serve merely as a rubber stamp. Were that the case, the framers would have given the Senate no role in the appointments process. Instead, the Senate's constitutional advice and consent mandate obliges us to serve as a check on the president's appointment power.

As a put it in my statement on Sen. Tower's nomination, I believe this requires senators to consider several things. First, the knowledge, experience and qualification of the nominee for the position. Second, the nominee's judgment as evidenced by its conduct and decisions, as well as his personal behavior. And third, the nominee's ethics, including current or prior conflicts of interest.

In unusual circumstances, senators can also consider fundamental and potentially irreconcilable policy differences between the nominee and the mission of the agency he or she is to serve.

On a few occasions, in fact, during my 12 years in the Senate, I have determined that the views of certain nominees on both ends of the political spectrum fell sufficiently outside the mainstream to compel me to oppose their nominations. In each case, I had serious doubts about whether they could credibly carry out the duties of the office for which they were nominated.

In 1993, for example, I voted against President Clinton's nominee to head the National Endowment for the Humanities because I believed that his active support of so-called speech codes cast doubt on his ability to administer the NEH appropriately.

That same year, I expressed opposition to another of President Clinton's nominees, this one ultimately withdrawn, his choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, because I feared that her writings and speeches demonstrating an ideological vision of what the voting rights laws should be that was so far from what they had been that I was reluctant to put her in charge of enforcing those laws, regardless of whether or not she had pledged to abide by the law as it existed.

In 1999, just last year, I concluded that a nominee to the Federal Elections Commission held views on the nation's campaign finance laws that were so inconsistent with the FEC's mission that I could not in good conscience vote to place him in a position over -- of authority over that agency.

And just this week, two days ago, I reached a similar conclusion with respect to President Bush's nominee to lead the Interior Department.

In short, although I believe that the constitution casts the Senate advice role is a limited one and counsel senators to be cautious in withholding their consent, I nevertheless have opposed nominees where their policy positions, statements or actions made me question whether they would be able to administer the agency that they had been nominated to lead in a credible and appropriate manner.

Regretfully, I conclude that such a determination is again warranted on this critically important nomination because of the record of the nominee and because of the position for which he has been nominated. The Justice Department occupies a unique role in the structure of our federal government. As its mission statement declares, the Justice Department exists "to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans."

No other agency every day and every hour makes decision about how and on hope to bring to bear the force of the law, criminal and civil, making countless decisions, not only on whom to prosecute or sue, and also on how harsh a sentence to seek, and even on who in the name of the people of the United States should face death as a punishment for their actions. No other agency has such broad and sweeping authority to take away our citizen's life, liberty or property -- an authority we as Americans accept because no other agency has more consistently sought to exemplify the rule of law in the abiding American aspiration for equal justice for all.

No other official of the United States government bears as great a responsibility as does the attorney general for protecting and enforcing the rights of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised in our society. If we are to sustain popular trust in the law, which is so important, so fundamental, to what our founding documents call domestic tranquility, it is absolutely critical that the department which is charged with enforcing the law not only be administered according to the law, but also that the great majority of Americans have confidence in the fairness of its leadership.

Unfortunately, Senator Ashcroft's past statements and action have given understandable suspicions to many citizens, particularly some of those whose rights historically have been most at risk, that he will not lead the department this a manner that will protect them.

Others have detailed his record so extensively here on the floor that I need not do so again. Suffice it to say that on issues ranging from civil rights to privacy rights, Senator Ashcroft has repeatedly taken positions considerably outside of the mainstream of American thinking.

When given the opportunity to consider laws as Missouri's governor and enforce them as Missouri's attorney general, he took actions that today raise serious questions among many in this country about his commitment to the bedrock American values and concepts of equal justice and equal opportunity. In speeches and articles, he has spoken and written words that have particularly lead many in the African-American community to question his sensitivity to their rights and their concerns. And when acting on nominees in the Senate, particularly Judge Ronnie White and ambassador James Hormel, he has made statements that have raised sincere questions in the minds of many about whether he will make fair and appropriate decisions regarding groups of Americans that have frequently been victimized by discrimination.

Mr. President, I ask you now unanimous consent that I might have up to five more minutes to complete my remarks.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Is there objection?

Without objection, the gentlemen from -- the senator from Connecticut is allotted five more minutes.

LIEBERMAN: I thank the chair and I thank my colleagues.

Mr. President, the cumulative weight of these words and deeds leaves me with sufficient doubt about Senator Ashcroft's ability to appropriately carry out and be perceived as appropriately carrying out the manifold duties of attorney general so that I have decided not to support his nomination.

Before yielding the floor, I would like to comment on one more issue that has come up during the consideration of this particular nomination: Senator Ashcroft's religious beliefs and his public profession of his faith. During the time since the president nominated Senator Ashcroft, many have argued, I must say too often privately, that Senator Ashcroft's deeply held beliefs and his religious practices somehow cast suspicion on his ability to serve as attorney general. I emphatically object and am confident that my colleagues will also reject any suggestion that the nominee's religious beliefs bear in any manner at all on the consideration of his nomination.

Mr. President, all across this nation, tens of millions of Americans of a multitude of faiths daily and weekly make professions of faith privately and publicly that elevate order and give purpose to their lives and enrich the life of our society. To suggest that all of us who believe with a steadfast faith that a supreme being -- in a supreme being as the universe's ultimate sovereign have the obligation to mute one of our faith's central tenets if we wish to serve in government is not to advance the separation of church and state, but instead to erect a barrier to public service by Americans of faith which is totally unacceptable.

To consider the private religious practices of a nominee or a candidate for public office, which are different for most, whether Pentecostal Christian, Orthodox Jewish, Shiite Muslim or any other denomination as a limitation on that person's capacity to hold that office is profoundly unfair. It is wrong. Nowhere in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution or in the jurisprudence surrounding them is there any suggestion that of all the value systems that those in public life are permitted to draw upon to inform their views and their action religion stands alone as being off limits.

Let us remember that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted by people of faith whose belief in the creator was the direct source of the rights with which they endowed us and which we enjoy to this day. To suggest that one may justify his or her views on abortion or environmental protection or any other issue with reference to a system of secular values but not by drawing on a tradition of values seems to me to be at odds, not only with the freedom of religion and expression enshrined in the First Amendment, but also with the daily experience of the vast major of our fellow citizens.

The First Amendment tells that we may not impose our religion on others. It most decidedly does not say that we may not ourselves use our religion to inform our public and private statements and positions.

So it is Senator Ashcroft's record, not his religion, that we should judge today. I admire Senator Ashcroft for his private and public adherence to his faith, but for the reasons stated above, based on his record, I will vote against his confirmation.

I thank the chair and my colleagues, and I yield the floor.

LEAHY: Mr. President? Mr. President, I'd ask unanimous consent with my...

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Senator from Vermont.

LEAHY: That I be able to continue for less than one minute.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Is there any objection?

Without objection, Senator from Vermont's recognized.

LEAHY: Mr. President, while the distinguished senator from Connecticut is on the floor, I appreciate his -- last part of his remark especially, and I'll speak more about it later today.

One thing I am concerned about is that there's somehow been this strawman put up as if there is a religious test. As I stated and as others did at the beginning of these hearings, as a stated on the floor, one of the things I admire most about Senator Ashcroft is his commitment to his family, his commitment to his religion. This, frankly, everybody's pointed out, are two of the things, whether we're for him or against him as the attorney general, we've admired the most: his commitment to his family, his commitment to his religion, and there should be no doubt about that in the public's mind.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Yes, the chair recognizes the senator from Alabama, Mr. Shelby.

I would recognize that the previous order, the time until 11:00 a.m. shall be under the control of the majority party. We have gone over by 10 minutes, and so you're recognized for 10 minutes. If your remarks are 15 minutes, rather than interrupt you I would ask unanimous consent that you could go until that time.

Does the senator from Alabama -- do you know the length of your remarks?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: Thank you, that's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: The senator from Alabama is recognized.

SHELBY: Mr. President, thank you very much for your courtesy.

Mr. President, over the past eight years, I believe that our Justice Department has floundered dangerously, in a lot of the instances, challenging our most basic understanding of the rule of law and starkly reminding us in America of the awesome power of the federal government and the dangers that the exercise of that power can present to a free society like ours.

I believe, Mr. President, that public confidence in our system of justice has been seriously damaged in the past eight years, and that our country has suffered as a consequence. Mr. President, I believe it's time to restore the public trust, and I don't believe that there's a better-qualified or more honorable man to do that job than Senator John Ashcroft, my former colleague.

Indeed, Mr. President, he's one of the most, if not the most experienced nominee for attorney general we've ever had in our history. He's one of the most -- best educated, best experienced attorney general nominees that I've seen in my 23 years here in Washington.

Mr. President, what's most outstanding about Senator Ashcroft is not his resume; though we could go on and on and on about. It's not his strong record of leadership as the attorney general of his state of Missouri and his leadership as the governor of the state of Missouri. No, that -- it is not his impressive -- yes, impressive legislative accomplishments right here in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. President, I submit to you that what's most outstanding about John Ashcroft is his character. It is the strength of that character that makes him so well suited for the job to be attorney general of the United States. His principles, Mr. President, and his integrity underscore the kind of leadership that the Justice Department so desperately, so desperately needs and the American people so rightly deserve as an attorney general.

John Ashcroft's conscience and his conviction ensure -- yes, ensure, Mr. President, rather than question his commitment to enforce the laws of our land fairly and impartially. I don't believe, even for a moment, that Senator Ashcroft's fiercest opponents truly believe, Mr. President, that he will not endeavor to enforce our laws faithfully.

While his conservatism threatens them, their real fear, I believe, is that he will enforce the law without prejudice; that he will be uniform in his application. This is because their greatest ideal, I believe, is to use the Justice Department as a tool to advance the political and the social agenda of America by selectively -- selectively, Mr. President, enforcing laws that they agree with and ignoring those that they disagree with.

John Ashcroft, I submit to you, is not going to do that. As I man who respects the rule of law and the importance of the public trust in our justice system, I have no doubt, Mr. President, they will enforce the laws of the land, rather than creatively interpret them, twist or contort them to match his personal beliefs. Mr. President, I'm pleased to support the nomination of John Ashcroft to be the attorney general of the United States. I sincerely believe that he will honor the office of attorney general and he will restore integrity to the Justice Department. I look forward to his confirmation later today by the Senate and his future service to the United States of America. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Thank the senator from Alabama.

SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: Mr. President?

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: Senator from Alaska, Mr. Murkowski.

MURKOWSKI: Mr. President, I wish the occupant a good day and trust that the debate is moving along towards...

KAGAN: We've been listening to comments from the floor of the U.S. Senate as they discuss the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Right before Senator Murkowski of Alaska, we were listening to Senator Shelby of Alabama, and before that a familiar face to many of our viewers, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

The discussion goes on; the vote is scheduled today for 1:45 p.m. Eastern. You will see that vote right here on CNN.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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