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Senate confirms Ashcroft for attorney general

Approval of controversial choice completes Bush Cabinet

Former U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, here speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, officially became U.S. attorney general Thursday night  

February 1, 2001
Web posted at: 2:17 PM EST (1917 GMT)

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The full Senate has approved all of President George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees, the last being former U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, Bush's choice for attorney general. Ashcroft's nomination sparked heated debate because of his conservative views and record on civil rights, women's issues and gun control. The Senate approved Ashcroft in a 58-42 vote Thursday, with eight Democrats joining the Republicans.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate confirmed John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general this afternoon, ending a sharply divided debate and filling the last slot in President George W. Bush's Cabinet.

By a 58-42 margin, in a roll call stretched to an hour to allow late-arriving Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware to vote, the chamber confirmed the former Missouri senator, governor and state attorney general for the post. The sharply divided Senate wrapped up its debate Thursday morning on Ashcroft's nomination, while Ashcroft's office at the Justice Department awaited his all-but-certain arrival for his first day of work.

Ashcroft's long-standing conservative political and religious views have been highlighted by his regular critics, who say they do not think he will adequately enforce civil rights laws, and argue that his religious beliefs simply will not allow him to enforce standing laws with which he may philosophically or morally disagree.

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A number of left-leaning advocacy groups have expressed specific alarm that Ashcroft could attempt to incrementally roll back statutes guaranteeing abortion on demand.

"Sen. Ashcroft has a deeply disturbing record on issue after issue of vital importance to millions of Americans," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, on Thursday.

In two days of testimony two weeks ago during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, Ashcroft pledged to uphold all standing laws, despite his personal points of view. The rule of law, Ashcroft insisted, would always trump his personal interests as long as he leads the Department of Justice.

Debate opened on the Senate floor Wednesday, with Republicans saying Ashcroft's qualifications for the job make him one of the best ever for the position. Before his six years in the Senate, Ashcroft was the twice elected governor of Missouri and also was the state's attorney general.

Democrats, with only a few notable exceptions, said Ashcroft was not fit for the post due to his record on civil rights, labor, gun control and women's issues.

Those lines of argument continued unbroken into Thursday's second day of floor discussion.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate on the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket, stood on the Senate floor Thursday morning and said he would oppose the Ashcroft nomination, even though he has known his former Senate colleague for 40 years, stretching back to their years in college.

"I have to oppose his nomination," Lieberman said after first heaping praise upon the nominee. "This is awkward and uncomfortable."

Lieberman, who often promoted his own Jewish Orthodox faith while stumping for the vice presidency, said he was not voting against Ashcroft because Ashcroft was a conservative Christian, but because Ashcroft's record as a politician raised some red flags.

"Based on his record, I will vote against his confirmation," Lieberman said.

Ashcroft's political dealings were highlighted by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who soon followed Lieberman on the floor and pilloried the nominee for, while in the Senate, opposing the appointment of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench, and the nomination of James Hormel as the Clinton administration's ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hormel, who is openly gay, was unfit to serve as an ambassador because of his own political activism, Ashcroft argued as a senator, and White, an African-American judge, was not a good fit for a federal judgeship because he was soft on criminal candidates for the death penalty, according to Ashcroft.

But critics have accused Ashcroft of displaying subtle forms of discrimination in both cases, and of damaging the careers of both men to further his own political interests.

"I would like to say to Sen. Ashcroft, if he is confirmed I wish him the very best," Wellstone said. "But I would also like to say that this is, in my 10 1/2 years in the Senate, as close as I can remember coming to a basic civil rights vote, a basic human rights vote.

"I cannot support John Ashcroft to be attorney general," he said.

One Democrat stepped forward to express unexpected support for the nomination. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, said he thought White and Hormel were treated shamefully, but he was not willing to punish Ashcroft in the same way. Thus, Dodd said, Ashcroft would get a "yes" vote.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of subtle prejudices of their own.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said Ashcroft's opponents were opposed to the nomination because the former senator has been open about expressing his dependence on his religious faith.

"It says 'In God We Trust" on our coins, but it isn't that way in our hearts," Gramm said.

The "ugly caricature" presented of Ashcroft, Gramm continued, was undeserved. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said Ashcroft could be taken at his earlier word.

"I believe he will enforce the law without prejudice," Shelby said.

At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday morning that Bush has impressed on Ashcroft the importance of improving and enforcing civil rights statutes.

"The Department of Justice enforces civil rights laws and is sensitive to civil rights concerns," Fleischer said. "The president thinks John Ashcroft is a man of integrity. He is a good man, and he will enforce the civil rights laws. He said he talked to John Ashcroft about this when selecting him."

Senators spar over Ashcroft nomination
January 31, 2001
Bush to hold first Cabinet meeting Wednesday without Ashcroft
January 30, 2001
Judiciary Committee's top Democrat opposes Ashcroft
January 29, 2001
Ashcroft supporters combat accusations of discrimination
January 26, 2001

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