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Ashcroft to be Confirmed as Attorney General 58-42

Aired February 1, 2001 - 2:19 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our viewers who've been watching to hear more about the Ashcroft confirmation hearing. It's slow going at the Senate today; they're still moving through the role call vote. But they have been holding open a place for Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who's out at a family funeral today; and they're holding open a place for him to be able to vote on the Senate when he does return. That is expected within about 40 minutes at this point. At this point, however, John Ashcroft does have enough votes to be confirmed as the next attorney general of the United States.

CNN's Jonathan Karl is our congressional correspondent, standing by on Capitol Hill at this hour.

Jonathan, now it's gotten very quiet on the Senate floor.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's because 99 of the 100 U.S. senators have cast their votes; we're just waiting for Joe Biden. And the way the vote count stands right now, 58 voting yes -- that's all 50 Republicans and eight Democrats voting yes and 41 voting no. Now, when Biden gets back into town, gets to the floor, he will vote no. He has already stated his intentions to do so. So the vote will be 58 to 42.

Now, right now in the Senate radio and TV gallery we have a press conference going on with Patrick Leahy, who was the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and also Ted Kennedy, who basically led the fight against Ashcroft; Chuck Schumer, and there you see Dick Durbin at the microphones.

Let's see if we can dip in and listen a little bit.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: ... and Senator Kennedy, Senator Schumer and all my colleagues in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate met it's constitutional responsibility today to advise and consent. The process which we followed was one that I would defend before anyone, either critic of champion of John Ashcroft. Each side was given an opportunity to bring all of the witnesses forward that they wished.

The nominee was given all of the opportunity that he wanted to explain his point of view. There was never, ever any question about his personal or private life. This inquiry was confined to his public record and his public career, as it should have been. And I want to salute Senator Leahy and all members of the committee for holding to those standards.

But we have met our constitutional responsibility with this vote today under Article II, Section 2. And now the question is whether the new attorney general, John Ashcroft, will meet his constitutional responsibility.

I have made no secret of my opposition to this nomination, and I've given a great number of reasons on the floor and in committee.

But let me say this and said it clearly: The best thing for America is for John Ashcroft to prove his critics wrong; for him to become an attorney general who clearly will enforce and administer the laws of the United States fairly, and with the sort of equanimity which we expect of man of his stature and his position. And that, I think, will be the best legacy of this investigation.

I am sure it was painful for John Ashcroft. It was painful for many of us to stand in judgment of our former colleague, but it was our constitutional responsibility.

And I hope that he will take from this experience the heartfelt sentiments of people across the United States who are worried about whether he will really execute his role as attorney general in a fair and impartial way.

If he does that, and if he rises to that challenge, he will not only serve his president, he will serve his nation.

QUESTION: Senator Schumer, I heard what you said about the shot across the bow. We inside Washington understand that kind of language, but a lot of the public doesn't. It's one thing to say it's a shot across the bow, but it's another thing to actually try your hardest to block something.

Could you talk a little bit about why the Democrats or yourself or nobody stood up and filibustered because it might have been within reach given the vote total?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: I think there were two reasons. One is simply we didn't have the votes. There were a number of members who felt morally constrained to vote against Senator Ashcroft, but felt that we ought to just get the vote done. And I think there is -- you know, all of us were torn on this. For me, I just can speak for myself. It's not easy to oppose a president who is newly elected and who says, "I choose this person to represent me in this position."

I thought he was the wrong person for the wrong job. But I think that when you get to a point of delay, you go further than that. I would have liked us to win, but we were not going to win. And I think that we have helped set the tone for many of the upcoming issues that will face us.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Can I add also, too, that I agree with Chuck's assessment.

In my judgment, there was not the votes to sustain a filibuster for a nomination which would not last -- at the longest it would last -- would only be the term of the president. Had this been a nomination for a lifetime appointment of somebody with the same background, then the votes might have been considerably different.

QUESTION: Senator Schumer, Senator Kyl was just speaking with us, and when we asked him about the comments the Democrats were making about sending a message, sending a signal, and you say a shot across the bow, he said he hoped that none of his Democratic Senate colleagues have been saying this, that it'd be a very bad thing for the Senate, a bad thing for the country; that to use a nomination to judge future nominations, they should be nominated -- I mean, excuse me, considered individually on their merits.

SCHUMER: He was considered on his merits. But I think what I am saying anyway is that when the president doesn't set policy with a degree of moderation there's going to be division.

We're not trying to send a signal. It's more a statement as to what the facts are. And the facts are that the country voted for bipartisanship and for moderation. The country voted right down the middle. And it will be much better for the country, as well as for everybody here, if we can work in that moderate way.

And I think we've shown that as a party. We have supported all of the Cabinet. I voted for many Cabinet nominations, my colleagues did too, that we don't agree with. I voted for Tommy Thompson; my view and his on choice are quite different. I voted for him with no conscience qualms.

But, again, the purpose here wasn't to send a signal. Jon Kyl is wrong. The purpose was to state a view that America should work in a bipartisan and moderate way, as well as every person, the number one thing we did, is assess whether John Ashcroft was the right person for the job, and he wasn't.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Let me just add to what Chuck said. These gains in the areas of civil rights have been fought for with tears, as well as blood; and the whole issues in protecting a woman's right to choose has been likewise. These now are core values in terms of the American society and constitutional protections, and they run very, very deep, and they are very powerful and very strong and people care very deeply about them, as they should, because they have defining in terms of what our society is about and what this country is about. And I think the vote today was, on our side, a real strong reaffirmation about the depth and the strength of the power, not just of the individual members, but also what all of us felt was out there in the countryside.

And in a democracy, people have to pay attention to these powerful feelings that the people have. That's really what this battle was about.

And the fact is that was reflected today, but it's there this afternoon. It's there tonight, it will be there tomorrow. We are hopeful that we can have a president who, sort of, understands and respects it. And that the future nominees, or future justices, or future Supreme Court justices will understand the importance of commitment to those core values as well.

QUESTION: Senator, you may discuss Senator Ashcroft's opposition to desegregation plan in the 1980s. What is your reaction to Senator Bond's statement on the floor today that Dick Gephardt and Tom Eagleton, and the late-Governor Carnahan all expressed similar views as John Ashcroft during the 1980s?

KENNEDY: Well, Mel Carnahan, and Attorney General Nixon, who was also accused of it, were part of the process of resolving that issue. And that's what the record shows. And that's what is very, very clear.

I'm not going to refight to the battle. I've outlined as clearly as, not just I could, but that the courts could, the blind, persistent, continuing, almost contemptuous attitude of the nominee in terms of following court orders. And I spelled those out in very, very careful detail.

That was not the position of the members that you just mentioned.

LEAHY: If I might add to that...

CHEN: All right, you've been hearing some of the senators who voted against John Ashcroft's nomination. Senator Kennedy there at the end, speaking about his concerns about Ashcroft and whether, as Senator Schumer was saying, this was actually something of a signal being set or whether it was just a message to encourage moderation in any future nominees.

CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl standing by for us as well.

John, talk to us about -- apparently now we're going to get 58 to 42 when Joe Biden does come in and vote. But talk to us about, I guess we could call them the Democratic eight, the ones who did vote in favor of Mr. Ashcroft's nomination. Why?

KARL: Well, you do have eight Democrats. Let me run through because it's an interesting mix of Democrats because it's an ideologically diverse and regionally diverse group. It's not the moderate Democrats that all come out and voted in favor of Ashcroft and it's not all the Democrats, you know, from his part of the country.

What you had here is you have one lone, liberal senator from New England, Chris Dodd, coming out and voting yes. You also had from the South, John Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller or Georgia, Robert Byrd of West Virginia voting yes. And then you had four Democrats from the West, from areas that were carried quite handily by George W. Bush in the election: Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of the state of Nebraska and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Actually, I should add Wisconsin was actually carried by Gore. But you had a very interesting mix of senators, not all from places that were carried by George W. Bush in the election and not all from one region in the country. But you saw, you know, a very important point, Joie. You heard a quote in that press conference from Chuck Schumer of New York saying that this showing 42 senators voting against John Ashcroft was what he called, his words, "a shot across the bow."

Democrats, by having such a strong showing against Ashcroft are sending a message that George W. Bush should not send such a conservative nominee when it comes to judicial appointments down the road.

CHEN: And particularly if it comes to Supreme Court justices in the future.

KARL: Oh, yes,

CHEN: All right, Jonathan Karl standing by for us on Capitol Hill. Our political analyst, Stu Rothenberg standing by as well.

Stu, John makes a point. This is a very mixed group in the Democratic eight. Why did they vote this way? Tell me it was their conscience.

STUART ROTHENBERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I will shock you and probably everybody else by saying yes, I think it largely was. There were two interesting things here, politically. First of all, Joie, not one single senator up for reelection in 2002 voted for this nomination.

Those are the people who should be most politically sensitive, even Democrats coming from relatively conservative states. Not Max Baucus of Montana. The Republicans swept Montana, not only the Senate race, but the governor's race, the House race and down the ballot. Not Max Cleland of Georgia, not Tim Johnson of South Dakota, not Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. So, John Breaux did, a conservative Democrat, but Mary Landrieu, who is up in two years, didn't.

I think the other thing that's particularly interesting is that all five Democratic senators that we're watching for 2004, four of them have voted so far. The fifth is Joe Biden. All of them will have voted no, including Evan Bayh moderate DLC Democrat from Indiana who has talked a lot about bipartisanship and voting with Republicans, and he has -- he's gotten a lot of Republican votes over the years in Indiana. He voted no.

I think politics is very much involved here but not for the eight Democrats who are voting for Ashcroft, but rather the other Democrats. Particularly these would-be presidential hopefuls, I think may want to keep their options open. If you're Evan Bayh and you voted for John Ashcroft, I think would you have cut your relationship with Democratic interest groups and made a presidential bid impossible. But it's very interesting, the Democrats who are up in 2002 did not vote for Ashcroft.

CHEN: Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg joining us from Washington as well as Jonathan Karl following along on Capitol Hill.



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