Ashcroft Confirmed; Environmentalists Recoil

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, February 1, 2001 (ENS) - A bitterly divided Senate today voted to ratify controversial U.S. Attorney General designee John Ashcroft. He is a conservative Republican whose suitability to serve as the nation's top legal official was furiously denounced by a phalanx of abortion rights supporters, civil rights leaders, and environmental groups.

Ashcroft, who formerly served as governor and U.S. senator from the state of Missouri, won confirmation for the high profile Bush administration Cabinet post by a 58 to 42 margin. All of the Senate's 50 Republicans voted in support of Ashcroft, along with eight Democratic senators.


John Ashcroft, President Bush's most controversial Cabinet appointee, prevailed in a furious battle to head up the Justice Department (Photo courtesy Office of the former Senator)

As attorney general, Ashcroft will head up the United States Justice Department, which plays a central role in prosecuting criminals and enforcing the full range of civil rights and consumer protection laws.

Ashcroft will have far reaching powers to advise the president and other top federal officials on legal matters, including the enforcement of hundreds of state and federal environmental laws.


Ashcroft faced a firestorm of criticism during his protracted Senate confirmation process, which sparked one of the most strident and vitriolic debates over a Cabinet nominee since John Tower was rejected as former President George Bush's Defense Secretary in 1989.

While the certainty of Ashcroft's confirmation was never really in doubt, the 42 votes that were cast against him are the greatest number ever registered against an attorney general nominee who was ultimately confirmed.

Critics charged that Ashcroft was unfit to serve as the government's top legal official because of his demonstrated public service record and strongly held personal beliefs regarding a host of hot button issues, including racial desegregation, gay and lesbian rights, gun control, and abortion rights. These critics for weeks have maintained that as attorney ge neral, Ashcroft would refuse to enforce laws that conflicted with his conservative Republican political philosophy or his deeply held fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs.

Ashcroft said during his confirmation hearing that while he personally disagrees with certain federal laws, he would nevertheless strive to enforce them as attorney general.

But Ashcroft's assurances failed to convince dozens of Senators, some of whom today again voiced concerns over Ashcroft's ascendancy to the top slot at the Justice Department.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and one of Ashcroft's first Senate critics, articulated a view held by many Senators on the Democratic side of the aisle.

"The attorney general is the nation's guardian of civil rights, of human rights, of women's rights, of the environment, of sensible gun laws," said Boxer. She maintained that the attorney general's office should be filled by a "moderate" who could "bring the country together."

"Out of 280 million Americans in our country, there has to be someone who is better suited for this job," said Boxer, who cast one of the 42 dissenting votes against Ashcroft.


California Senator Barbara Boxer, center, meets with civil rights and women's rights leaders opposed to the Ashcroft nomination (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Boxer's point was echoed by Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York. Schumer, who like many senators lauded Ashcroft as a man of principle and integrity, also registered a negative vote.

"The issue was to assess whether John Ashcroft was the right person for the job. He wasn't," Schumer said.

Still, a total of eight Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Ashcroft. Among the most surprising of this group was Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, one of the chamber's more liberal members.

"I hope that this vote of mine will not be in vain," Dodd said during the Senates' debate on Ashcroft earlier this week. "I hope that John Ashcroft will uphold his pledge to enforce the laws of our land. I fervently hope that he'll work to unite rather than divide our nation."


Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd was one of eight Democrats to vote in favor of Ashcroft (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Other Democrats who voted in favor of Ashcroft were Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Zell Miller and John Breaux of Georgia, and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.


Ashcroft's opponents said that the 42 votes that were cast against the new attorney general should send a strong message that Senate Democrats could sustain a filibuster against any more ultra-conservative judicial nominations put forth by President Bush. Under Senate rules, at least 60 votes are needed to suspend a filibuster, a debating mechanism that can be used to derail proposals that would likely otherwise pass by garnering at least 50 votes.

"The vote is a shot across the bow in terms of the Justice Department and how it conducts itself, in terms of upcoming Supreme Court nominations, and the push-pull with the Bush administration," said New York Senator Schumer. "Will it be bipartisan, or will it be pulled to the right?"


Schumer's point was echoed by Sierra Club president Carl Pope, who said that the 58-42 margin "puts John Ashcroft on notice" that he will not be allowed to get away with weakening enforcement of the nation's environmental laws.

"The narrow vote puts John Ashcroft on notice that he should not let corporate polluters off the hook as America's top environmental cop," Pope said. "America needs an attorney general who will aggressively protect our families from polluters who poison the air we breathe and the water we drink."


Ashcroft and his family on a whitewater rafting trip in the Missouri Ozarks. Conservation groups have expressed grave concerns over the environmental record that Ashcroft has compiled as an elected official. (Photo courtesy Office of the former Senator)

Pope noted that Ashcroft vowed to uphold the nation's environmental laws during his confirmation hearing before the Senate's Judicial committee.

Asked specifically if he would "aggressively defend and uphold" the Clinton administration rule that bans logging and road construction on about 60 million acres of unroaded public lands, Ashcroft said, "I will, regardless of whether or not I supported something as a senator, defend the rule."

The roadless rule is just one of many Clinton era policies that has drawn fire from Congressional Republicans and the Bush White House.

The Sierra Club and other conservation organizations, fearing that Ashcroft would serve as a powerful ally in rolling back those environmental protections, worked unsuccessfully to block the new attorney general's nomination.


Pope noted that during his one term in the Senate, Ashcroft voted against appropriating additional funding for environmental programs such as the Clean Water Action Plan and the Superfund program, which is designed to remediate America's most hazardous toxic waste sites.

By contrast, Ashcroft supported legislation that weakened clean water protections, and he voted in favor of a measure that allowed mining companies to dump cyanide and other mining wastes on large areas of public lands adjacent to mining sites, Pope added.

Pope said that the 58 senators who voted to confirm Ashcroft "are now obligated to ensure that he aggressively enforces" the environmental laws that he once worked to weaken or overturn.

Ashcroft drew heavy fire from environmentalists for other actions he took during his term in the Senate, including:

According to the League of Conservation Voters, a bipartisan organization that grades federal lawmakers on the most important environmental votes of the year, Ashcroft was among the most anti-environmental members of the Senate during his term there.

The group said that Ashcroft cast pro-environmental votes only 3.7 percent of the time during his six year stint on Capitol Hill, which began in January 1995.

Ashcroft is the last of President Bush's 13 Cabinet nominees to win Senate confirmation. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who faced enormous opposition from environmental groups, was confirmed earlier this week.