Ashcroft Weathers Storm as Other Nominees Sail Home

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John Ashcroft ponders a question while testifying before the Senate

So, what kind of day was it on Capitol Hill? It depends on where you were sitting.

Those who came to observe or participate in confirmation hearings for Secretary of State–designate Colin Powell; Christine Todd Whitman, Bush's choice for EPA administrator; Mel Martinez, the HUD secretary–designate; or Treasury hopeful Paul O'Neill were treated to a day of friendly banter occasionally interrupted by the odd probing question. Those who sat in on John Ashcroft's continuing saga before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on the other hand, witnessed another scene altogether, one marked by harsh repudiation and angry retorts.

Ashcroft faces down his critics

Ashcroft's primary mission was to fend off attacks from Democrats, who assailed his record on civil rights and questioned his dedication to "sensible gun laws." The nominee, who appeared fairly energetic at 10 a.m., seemed to age 15 years during the course of the marathon day. And while Ashcroft held his own as the accusations intensified, Democratic senators Joe Biden, Dick Durbin and Edward Kennedy appeared especially eager to land as many blows as possible, roaring across their table at the frustrated nominee, who asked several times for "uninterrupted time to respond."

Many familiar themes resurfaced as the senators tore into Ashcroft's handling of Justice Ronnie White's nomination for the federal bench, his refusal to meet with James Hormel when he was nominated as ambassador to Luxembourg and his unapologetic interest in finding loopholes in Roe v. Wade.

Ashcroft took a shot at explanations, saying of his Ronnie White opposition, "I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White," and responding even more forcefully to questions about his inclusion in the neo-Confederate (some say racist) Southern Partisan magazine. "I repudiate racist organizations, racist ideas," he said. "[The] question is, will people have confidence in me, and I assure them that they will, because I will serve and I will serve well. I will enforce the law. I reject racism. I reach out to people, all people."

Ashcroft's answers sometimes avoided the questions altogether, as if perhaps he was more interested in putting a few minds at ease than in full disclosure — an approach that reportedly has Democrats fuming and claiming Ashcroft is masking his true convictions. Will Ashcroft's closely held conservative ideology, they demanded, influence the way he'd enforce the law of the land? Absolutely not, replied Ashcroft again and again, in an increasingly injured tone. "I know the difference between enactment and enforcement." Undeterred, his assailants kept up their attack well into the evening. Democrat Herb Kohl, who lackadaisically probed Ashcroft about his policies as governor of Missouri, seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about; the Wisconsin senator sighed as he wrapped up his questioning. "You know, you'll probably be confirmed."

Clinton and Whitman face off, with disappointing results

Across the Capitol steps, New Jersey governor and Beltway newbie Christie Todd Whitman was also being grilled — but in a considerably less raucous setting. Whitman was asked politely by the Environment and Public Works committee (whose members include Hillary Clinton) about her plans to enact new environmental laws and her record in New Jersey. Whitman emphasized the need for a sweeping environmental policy, "led by the states," she said, "but with a strong role for federal government."

As she watched Whitman's hearing and the surrounding media circus, TIME's Ann Blackman noticed that another new face was doing her best to stay out of the spotlight. "It was really interesting to me that Hillary — considered by many to be a world-class orator, and who must have incredibly strong feelings about John Ashcroft because he represents everything that is anathema to her — never made a single comment about him or his nomination. It's because she realizes, hey, I'm the junior senator from New York here, and she doesn't want to risk upstaging Chuck Schumer. So instead of making a grand speech, she was reduced to making these really mundane comments during Whitman's hearing."

Defending Bush's tax cut

In another committee room, Paul O'Neill, whose nomination is considered extremely safe, was gently prodded by Finance Committee members for his opinion on President-elect Bush's $1.3 trillion proposed tax cut. "If we're going to have a tax reduction," the laconic businessman replied, "I don't know why we wouldn't want it now." In one of the most head-slapping moments of the long day, O'Neill was also compelled to make it clear that he is, in fact, very much in favor of a strong dollar, despite some reports to the contrary.

Martinez moves through without a hitch

Senators on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee didn't seem particularly concerned about Mel Martinez, either. The HUD secretary–designate zipped through his questions, promising to increase the rates of home ownership across the country, adding, "I came to America with a suitcase and the hope of a better life. I know the value of home ownership because I have witnessed its great power throughout my entire life."

Not exactly a nail-biter

And finally, General Colin Powell essentially moved through a receiving line of welcoming senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, many of whom stayed after the hearings to shake the secretary of state-designate's hand and mingle around him like star-struck teenagers. There were a few pointed questions about Powell's take on committing U.S. troops and national missile defense, but for the most part, the queries sounded more like valedictories. "Without question, General Powell's experience at the highest levels of government... makes him well qualified to be secretary of state," enthused Senator Joe Biden. No one doubts Powell will win confirmation, especially after a hearing so genial it moved CNN's national correspondent to remark, "I imagine there's someone standing at the door saying, 'Welcome to the Love Boat.'"