Confirmation Bear Traps

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It is not only civil rights groups that have Ashcroft in their sights. He has always been an ardent abortion foe, so abortion-rights groups view his nomination as "akin to the appointment of George Wallace to be Attorney General in the 1960s," says Rosemary Dempsey, Washington director of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. In 1998 Ashcroft sponsored a constitutional amendment to outlaw all abortions except those needed to save the life of the mother. Bush allows for exceptions in cases of rape or incest, but Ashcroft didn't. His proposal defined human life as beginning at fertilization, which women's groups say could have meant that not only abortion but also birth-control pills and IUDs, which prevent development of a fertilized egg, would be illegal. "Bush couldn't have chosen anyone more hostile, more dangerous," says Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, "more devoted to taking Roe v. Wade down."

NARAL and Planned Parenthood both mounted unprecedented get-out-the-vote efforts in last year's election. Their state-of-the-art e-mail and phone-bank techniques will now be turned to stopping Ashcroft. But Ashcroft has broad and deep support among social conservatives. More than 180 groups, led by the Free Congress Foundation, have signed on to support him with grass-roots lobbying. Privately, some Democrats say it's useful to rough up Ashcroft, even if just to scare Bush into picking more moderate judges or Justices --and to preclude the chance that Ashcroft might someday land on the Supreme Court. "That's where the endgame is," says Ohio Republican Mike DeWine. "John will be used for the next battle, which is the judgeships."

In some ways, Linda Chavez is more vulnerable than Ashcroft. She doesn't enjoy the professional courtesy that Ashcroft does as a former Senator, and for the moment, activists put her as their No. 2 target. In fact, some Republicans were surprised at Bush's choice for the Labor Department, because it could come at such high cost. That Chavez is a Hispanic woman may not help Bush if many Hispanics and women object to her views. "For the life of me, that doesn't make any sense," says an adviser to the Bush campaign. "She is hated by the constituency they were trying to court with her selection." Chavez, a native New Mexican who does not speak a word of Spanish, is the lead ax wielder against bilingual education.

Chavez started out as a Democrat, working for the party's national committee while her husband worked for the AFL-CIO. She moved on to the American Federation of Teachers, another natural step in the liberal food chain. But as it happened, she found herself growing more conservative. Chavez likes to say that she didn't leave the Democratic Party but that it left her on domestic social issues and foreign policy.

She is no straight-line conservative. Like Bush, she has broken with some in her party by supporting legal immigration. But labor groups are convinced that she poses a threat. "We've never before had a nominee for the Department of Labor who has expressed opposition to some of the key things that are her responsibility to enforce," says Marcia Greenberger, executive director of the National Women's Law Center. Critics fear Chavez will ignore all but the most egregious examples of workplace discrimination, fight against raising the minimum wage and side with Big Business against family-friendly measures like family medical leave and child-care support.

Conservatives are hoping she will throw open the windows at Labor, with her articulate style and political skills. "I don't think we'll see her try to overturn the Executive Order that created affirmative action. That battle's been fought and lost in the '80s," says Bolick, who calls Chavez a "creative conservative" and "kindred spirit." "The law says preferences should be given to the socially and economically disadvantaged. I see her reinterpreting that statute through regulation, trying to go away from race toward class."

The third most tempting target for interest groups is Gale Norton, the former Colorado attorney general who is Bush's pick for Interior. She is being assailed by environmentalists, who now rival civil rights groups for clout on Capitol Hill. Norton, says Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, "would be a natural disaster as Interior Secretary. Norton is the oil, mining and timber industry's choice." Pope's group is worried that she will move quickly to open more federal land to mining and oil exploration. During a stint as Reagan's associate solicitor for conservation and wildlife, where she was a protege of James Watt, the Interior Secretary enviros loved to hate, she worked to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and is expected to do so again. After all, Bush campaigned on the idea. And those who hope the Bush Administration will take global warming seriously may be disappointed to learn that in 1997 Norton co-authored an op-ed piece declaring there's no such thing.

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