WASHINGTON -- On a day when several of President Bush's Cabinet choices were greeted by a welcoming Senate, his most politically charged selection -- attorney general nominee John Ashcroft -- generated increased tensions and stepped-up opposition from Democrats.
The Senate unanimously approved Tommy Thompson to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and Norman Y. Mineta as transportation secretary. Even the nomination of Gale A. Norton as interior secretary -- opposed by many environmental groups -- was sent to the full Senate by a lopsided 18-2 committee vote, while Labor Secretary-designate Elaine Chao received a warm reception from another Senate panel.
But for Ashcroft, there was only more bad news.
While Republicans said they remain confident that the former Missouri senator ultimately will be confirmed as the nation's top law enforcement official, Democrats declared in even starker terms that they will not give their former colleague a free ride.
Dianne Feinstein, California's senior senator, became the latest Democrat to come out in opposition to Ashcroft, calling him an "ultra right-wing" partisan who cannot be trusted to enforce the nation's laws on behalf of all its citizens.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee forced the panel to put off for a week its vote on Ashcroft's nomination. They said that they need more time to collect and review information on his controversial 25-year record in public service, including his responses to a barrage of nearly 350 written questions from Democrats.
Republicans said that it was the first time in at least a quarter-century that an attorney general nominee had been subjected to such procedural maneuvering.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the tactics come "at a time when we need to make certain that our nation has its executive officers in place so that we can have an attorney general who can wage a war on crime and enforce the laws."
But Democrats noted that former Attorney General Janet Reno's top aide, Eric Holder Jr., is acting as attorney general. "It's not as though justice goes undone," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
President Bush also downplayed the conflict. "I think they're making sure that, when they confirm him, all questions have been answered," he said of the Democrats' action.
Feinstein joins five other Democratic senators
who have declared their formal opposition to Ashcroft, but she is the first from the Judiciary Committee. Her opposition is seen as potentially significant because she is a political moderate whose vote against Ashcroft was by no means assured.
Feinstein said that the extreme nature of Ashcroft's record on abortion, gun control, civil rights and other issues makes it difficult to believe "that he can in fact fairly and aggressively enforce laws he deeply believes are wrong."
"How can our citizens feel that this man will stand up for them when their civil rights are violated?" she asked, adding that her office has received more than 60,000 letters, e-mail messages and calls from Californians who are overwhelmingly opposed to Ashcroft.
Separately, Chao appeared to enjoy broad support during her confirmation hearing to become secretary of labor.
Chao said that she supports Bush's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage, now set at $5.15 an hour, but with the provision that states could opt out. Democrats will push for a higher minimum wage this year but strongly oppose any opt-out provision.
Chao, a Heritage Foundation scholar, is a former head of United Way and the Peace Corps and a former deputy secretary of transportation.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.