Ashcroft's Moment

bush ashcroft attorney general

The political moment of truth for President-elect Bush's pick for attorney general is just around the corner.

Confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft before the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday. A conservative Republican from Missouri, Ashcroft is expected to face tough questions from Democrats on a variety of hot-button social issues.

One committee member, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), has doubts about whether Ashcroft could fully enforce federal laws with which he may not agree, such as those on abortion rights and gun control.

"Sure, if you ask the words, he will say he would enforce the law. But this takes hard-nosed, day-to-day, dedicated enforcement. And when one has such strong ideological beliefs, you wonder whether the law will be fully enforced," Schumer told CBS News' Face The Nation on Sunday.

Capitol Hill will be familiar turf for Ashcroft: he was a senator himself until only a few weeks ago. Freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan, whose husband defeated Ashcroft posthumously, agreed late last week to introduce Ashcroft at the hearings. Ashcroft's allies said her decision was a favorable signal to other Democrats.

In a letter, Mrs. Carnahan told Ashcroft that she has not decided whether to support his nomination, but "I am glad to extend the home-state courtesy of introducing you at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday." Nominees are traditionally
introduced by same-state senators - and in this case, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) will make an introduction as well.

Prior to the Senate, Ashcroft served as Missouri's governor and attorney general. It's that Show-Me State record which Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) invoked repeatedly on the nominee's behalf on Face The Nation.

"John Ashcroft has a record as attorney general of Missouri of enforcing the law," said Kyl, another Judiciary Committee member. "So it's very hard to keep asking him to prove something when he continues to say, 'Look, I will enforce the law. My record shows that I've enforced the law. What is it that suggests that I haven't done that in the past?'"

But Schumer noted Ashcroft "did apply an ideological standard" in opposing several Clinton nominees while in the Senate.

"And if we were to use those same standards, the Senate would have a rough time approving John Ashcroft," he said.

According to Kyl, Ashcroft's critics are trying to have it both ways by hammering at his beliefs and his integrity at the same time.

"I think when people accuse John Ashcroft on the one hand of being very committed to his principles ... and very religious, as a matter of fact, on the one hand - and on the other hand, (they) question when he puts his hand on the Bible and swears he will uphold the Constitution that maybe suddenly he will lose those principles, that there is a disconnect there," Kyl said.

Expect race to continue t loom in the debate over Ashcroft. Civil rights groups point to Ashcroft's successful opposition as a senator to the nomination of Ronnie White, a black Missouri Supreme Court justice, to the federal bench. White is expected to testify during this week's hearings.

"This is a very important position, very sensitive to minorities, to immigrants, to women where Senator Ashcroft has shown extreme views," said Schumer. "He is not simply a mainstream conservative. The John Birch Society said he was their second favorite senator ... even more than Jesse Helms."

Ashcroft's backers maintain the senator opposed White over the death penalty, not over race. They also stress positive aspects of Ashcroft's record, including his signing of a state Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday into law.

Besides the White nomination, another flashpoint for Ashcroft is his 1999 visit to Bob Jones University, the conservative Christian school in South Carolina that at that time still banned interracial dating. In addition, school leaders have labeled the Roman Catholic Church a "Satanic cult."

During his visit, Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree from the school. In his remarks, he invoked New Testament scripture when he said "we have no king but Jesus."

On Face The Nation, Kyl said people - including and especially non-Christians - need to consider those words in the context of Ashcroft's personal religious beliefs, not as an indicator of how he would act as attorney general.

"They should take it as a Christian speaking to a group of Christians talking about what they have in common. That is the Christian belief," Kyl said. "And it was one of the battle cries of the Revolution of the founding of this country, which enables all of us - Christian, Jew, Muslim, and everyone else - to enjoy the freedoms that we have."

Finally, Sen. John McCain, Kyl's fellow Arizona Republican, also defended Ashcroft on Face The Nation. During his GOP bid for the White House last year, McCain blasted Mr. Bush - this then-rival - for visiting Bob Jones.

While McCain said Sunday that "I'm not sure" whether Ashcroft would have been his pick for attorney general had he become president, the senator added a president "should have enormous latitude in who he names to his Cabinet. And unless there is a strong reason for not confirming that person, then it should happen."

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