Why Did Dems Stall Ashcroft Nomination?

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Sen. Hatch (l) and Sen. Leahy at the confirmation hearing for John Ashcroft

Orrin Hatch had big plans on Wednesday morning.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee called members to a meeting in hopes of moving John Ashcroft's nomination as U.S. attorney general to the floor of the Senate. Instead, he was stonewalled by Democrats — in what may be the precursor to a drawn-out filibuster.

Ranking Democratic committee member Patrick Leahy, in conjunction with other committee Democrats, used a perfectly legal but intentionally frustrating stall tactic, asking for an extra week to consider Ashcroft's nomination before calling a committee vote. The stay conveniently provides Dems with a chance to dig up more information on the nominee, which they hope will in turn stoke the flames of support for a filibuster, which some Democrats, notably Edward Kennedy, consider a real possibility once the nomination reaches the Capitol floor.

Searching for skeletons?

The method of delay is simple: Ashcroft, says Leahy, is to provide written answers to more than 150 written questions. (Senator Hatch is on the record calling at least some of the questions "too personal" in nature; given the sheer number, one can only imagine the minutiae into which many of the queries must delve.)

Republicans charge that Dems are simply trying to give Ashcroft's adversaries more time to mobilize and protest against his nomination. Democrats defend their decision, and some say they fear Ashcroft's true political nature was carefully masked during his time before the committee.

Ashcroft supporters are confident he will be confirmed

While GOP leaders are confident they've locked up their party's 50 votes in favor of Ashcroft, no one is absolutely sure how many Democrats are considering giving him the green light — although West Virginia's Robert Byrd, Georgia's Zell Miller and North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan have all expressed their intentions to confirm. One Democrat on the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, doesn't need the extra week to make up her mind about Ashcroft; she has already announced her opposition to the nominee, citing his "ultra-right-wing" record on hot-button issues like civil rights, school prayer and abortion.

Bob Jones speech worries some Democrats

Anxious as they may be to read Ashcroft's musings on everything from farfalle to Fendi, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee aren't just holding out for Ashcroft's written responses; they're also waiting to see FBI financial reports, several speeches, and the complete videotape of Ashcroft's 1999 commencement address at Bob Jones University. Ashcroft's affiliation with the controversial school has raised eyebrows among his detractors, who point to college founder Bob Jones' racist and anti-Catholic convictions — and wonder aloud just how far they actually are from Ashcroft's own.

When Ashcroft comes back with his detailed responses, which Hatch is reportedly squeezing out of the nominee at breakneck speed, the committee will meet again to vote on the confirmation itself, and the debate will likely move to the Senate floor. And, if Kennedy and like-minded Democrats have anything to say about it, that could be only the first of many hurdles in the Ashcroft saga.