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Ari Fleischer Addresses John Ashcroft as Senate Votes on His Confirmation

Aired February 1, 2001 - 1:50 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: We want to go to the White House now, as Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer is talking about what is happening right here with this vote.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And that's something the president shares. And I think that was very healthy conversation. And I think that was time well spent and I think that's something you're going to see come out of this Department of Justice.

But the healing process will continue. And I think it's going to only grow better over time.

QUESTION: Will this battle over the senator in any way tie President Bush's hands when it comes to making the Supreme Court nominee?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about Supreme Court nominees; there are no vacancies.

QUESTION: Ari, a follow-up to Ashcroft, how's the healing process going to continue when you have one group seriously saying that this man has civil rights problems and he's now the head of the Justice Department, if that does happen, in a matter of minutes? How is the healing process going to begin?

FLEISCHER: Differences of opinion are nothing new to Washington. What we hope will be new to Washington is the manner in which those differences are settled and aired. And that is whether it's civility or the respect for each other when listening.

I can't remember a president, of either party, inviting people over to the White House who have such a different view for the simple reason of wanting to hear their point of view. And I think that's part of that process. But there will be no 100 percent -- there's seldom other 100 percent issues in Washington, D.C. But what can be done, what can help to heal, is the listening process.

And let me remind everybody one other thing, and this is the way Congress has worked historically and still does, on even given day, somebody will vote with you in the morning and vote against you in the afternoon. It is still all our jobs to work together. QUESTION: A follow-up to that: So African-Americans should not take it as a slap in the face that, after President Bush found out that there were some things that he didn't know, that he did not withdraw Ashcroft; that even though he is sitting as the head of the Justice Department, that everything is still fine and civil rights will still be a cornerstone of his administration?

FLEISCHER: Let me address that question. I think there may have been some confusion last night and some misunderstanding about what the president said.

The president did not make any such statement.

QUESTION: He didn't? So you're saying Eddie Bernice is wrong?

FLEISCHER: The president did not make any such statement.

QUESTION: What did he...

FLEISCHER: The president said that he was listening, that he heard the voices. That's what he said.

QUESTION: Ari, members of the Black Caucus didn't show up, had intentionally boycotted the meetings. How did the president feel about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, that was explained to him at the beginning of the meeting. And it was part of a preamble and explanation at the beginning, and the president noted it.

QUESTION: Ari, what are the chances we'll see or hear from the president after the conference?

FLEISCHER: If there are any changes in the schedule, we'll advise you.

QUESTION: Do you expect that he will come out?

FLEISCHER: I just can't say.

QUESTION: It's been an old American policy that America is the European power also; it has become even a saying. Will the president uphold that policy?

FLEISCHER: That we are a European power?

I think what you'll see in the president's conduct to foreign policy in Europe and around the world that he wants to have a foreign policy that is marked by humble -- a humble foreign policy, a humble nation that does not go around the world dictating...

ALLEN: ... to other topics. So since we're covering this vote of John Ashcroft going down in the U.S. Senate right now, we will step away. We will continue to monitor's today's news conference and let you know of other news that may come from it.

Let's talk with CNN's Kelly Wallace who is at the White House.

As we heard from Ari Fleischer, the healing process will begin, he says, once this vote happens and John Ashcroft becomes the attorney general. But let's back up: questions about a statement, a controversial statement there at the White House. What can you tell us about that, Kelly?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely, Natalie.

Last night, President Bush met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And there were reports that Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson said that, in that meeting, President Bush told her that he learned things throughout the confirmation process about his nominee that he didn't know before this whole process started.

Now, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, was asked about that earlier in what is called a gaggle, where he meets with reporters earlier in the morning. He said he didn't hear President Bush make that statement. Obviously, you heard a reporter ask Ari Fleischer again about that. He said that the president did not make that statement -- Ari Fleischer saying that the president told the members of the Congressional Black Caucus that he is listening, that he is hearing their concerns -- Ari Fleischer saying that the president was happy top hear sort of the depth of feeling in opposition that members of the Congressional Black Caucus have to John Ashcroft.

But, again, the position from the White House is that the former senator will be a good man, will do a good job, as you heard Ari Fleischer saying, that the president believes that the public will see a nonpartisan attorney general, someone who this White House says will enforce all of the laws in the books, even in those laws disagree with some of his own personal views -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Kelly Wallace at the White House, thank you. We will talk to you again in a moment.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we want to go back to Capitol Hill now -- Jonathan Karl there.

Jonathan, I wonder if you can explain to us a little bit about what is actually happening on the Senate floor? They look like they are just gathering at a social gathering. It's hard to believe that a vote is actually taking place at this hour.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joie, a vote usually takes only 15 minutes. But in this case, they are doing what they call holding the vote open. That is because there is one senator, Joe Biden, a Democrat of Delaware, who is not in town yet. He is rushing to get back to town to make the vote. They are going to keep the vote until he gets here. Biden is expected here at about 3:00.

Meanwhile, Joie, if you are keeping score at home: a couple of votes you may want to take note of. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, has just voted -- not surprisingly -- in the negative, voting against the Ashcroft nomination. She said before she would do so. But we have another Democratic who voted yes. And that is John Breaux of Louisiana -- Breaux of course a moderate Democrat, one who has met several times with President Bush and is seen as one of Bush's allies on the Democratic side of the aisle. He becomes the eighth Democrat to vote yes on this nomination.

CHEN: So, normally, if were watching this process, would it be more formal? It's just hard to believe that they're really doing anything. They all seem to be walking around and greeting each other.

KARL: Well, you know, Joie, Senate votes are one of those times in the Senate when they are all together on the floor. And it's actually a time when some business gets conducted, believe it or not, because you get to go across the aisle or to another senator and talk about some other business that comes up. It's one of the few times when all of the senators are at the same place at the same time.

So it does get into a little bit of a social gathering. And some of those conversations are most likely conversations that have absolutely nothing to do with John Ashcroft, but other deals or whatever they might be working on in the future and coming up in the Senate. So that's what you see. And you see that this is somewhat typical. But what is atypical about this, Joie, is this vote is taking so long.

This is more than an hour's worth of voting time set aside. And, again, that's simply because they are doing the courtesy, on such an important vote, of waiting for one senator who is not in town to get back in town in time to make the vote. And that's Joe Biden.

CHEN: And can just I ask how this is done? I mean, I heard earlier the roll call coming through in the audio feed. But I can't see -- do they stand up and say "aye" or "nay"? Or they do come forward? I can't really tell what is going on on the floor there.

KARL: Well, what they do is they come down and they go to those tables that are in the front there. When their name is called, they come to the tables and they tell the clerk how they are going to vote. So they actually have to come forward and give their vote. And just a few minutes ago, right before we came up -- there's Barbara Mikulski entering.

Well, it looks she may have been entering her vote. They come right there. And that's where Hillary Clinton went and cast her no- vote just a few minutes ago. But what is interesting here is, now with eight Democrats voting in favor of Ashcroft, that may be the only eight Democrats that you will see. If that holds true, Joie, you will see 42 votes against Ashcroft. That means he wins -- he wins. But the thing is, that's an extremely high number of people to vote against a Cabinet nomination.

As a matter of fact, we did a little bit of research on this. And what we found is that the most votes ever cast against a successful nomination was 44. And he's probably somebody who might not be on top of your mind: Earl Butz back in 1971, Richard Nixon's nominee to be the agriculture secretary. It's highly unusual to see so many votes go against a successful Cabinet nomination. If they are going to go down, they are going to go down.

But most of these votes are unanimous or there are very few voting against. So Ashcroft will become the attorney general. But he will do so with the fewest number -- the most number of no-votes of any nominee besides that Earl Butz back in 1971 for agriculture secretary -- Joie.

CHEN: And are there other senators that you are watching for, Jon, that you think are on the fence still at this late hour?

KARL: You know, we had some that we watching for just vote. Another one was Marry Landrieu, who like John Breaux, is from Louisiana, a state that voted in favor of Bush. Nobody knew how Mary Landrieu was going to vote. She came out no. We also had, as I mentioned earlier, Jean Carnahan, from Missouri, like John Ashcroft. She had kept her cards very close to chest. She voted no.

Another one: Max Cleland of Georgia, another Bush state, voted no. Those are who we have been looking for. Most of them having been coming up no.

CHEN: CNN'S Jonathan Karl for us, watching all the events taking place on Capitol Hill today.

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