Ashcroft Hearings Start With a Bang

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John Ashcroft (r.), with Sen. Christopher Bond looking on, waits to testify

Never far beneath all the gentlemanly back-patting and hand-shaking, a deep vein of hostility surfaced on the first afternoon of John Ashcroft's confirmation hearing.

Ashcroft, President-elect Bush's controversial nominee for attorney general, faced his former colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon for what pundits predicted could be the most contentious — and partisan — confirmation battle in a decade. Ashcroft holds staunchly conservative views on many of the nation's most divisive topics, including abortion and gay rights. As the committee members made their opening statements, an unintelligible protester shouted briefly before being carted off by Capitol police, and it looked like fireworks weren't too far off. P> They even threatened to explode once or twice as committee chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, and ranking minority member Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, bared their teeth at each other over procedure and the reputation of their respective parties.

The senators' comments to Ashcroft fluctuated wildly between invective and praise: Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, declared, "I find Senator Ashcroft's record to be extremely troubling," while South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond croaked out his support. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, told Ashcroft, "I think you are perfect for this job," and was seconded by New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith.

Again and again, committee members were warned against rejecting Ashcroft simply on the basis of his ideology — and several Republicans defending the former senator even made the case that Ashcroft's strong religious and moral beliefs would make him more likely to uphold the laws he'd be sworn to protect as attorney general. Ashcroft himself, in brief but impassioned opening remarks, concurred, attempting to dissuade those who fear his appointment would threaten existing abortion and civil rights laws: "I know the difference between enacting and enforcing the law. I know the post of attorney general means advancing the national interest and not advancing my own interest... While I believe Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, I accept Roe as the settled law of the land, and I will enforce that law."

As Ashcroft completed his statement with a flourish ("I will uphold those laws, so... help... me... God"), someone on the committee bench muttered, "Boy, that was a powerful statement."

The awe didn't hold for long — moments later, the battle lines were clear once again. First, Leahy went on the attack, blasting Ashcroft's opposition to defeated Clinton nominee for surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher. Why, Leahy wanted to know, had Ashcroft been so opposed to Satcher, an OB-GYN and pro-choice advocate? Ashcroft, sensing danger, cited "ethical problems" with Satcher's work, refusing to be more specific, mentioning only one of the doctor's controversial medical research projects. Hatch gave Ashcroft a much-needed breather, lobbing a few softballs at his friend until Kennedy stepped in and hammered away at Ashcroft's voting record in Missouri. Kennedy asked the nominee about his refusal to sign busing orders that would have effectively desegregated the St. Louis school district; Ashcroft replied the busing would have cost too much. Finally, Thurmond took up Ashcroft's case, giving the former Senator a chance to expound on his successes in gun control and drug prevention.