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Senate committee endorses Ashcroft by narrow margin

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly approved the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general Jan. 30.

The committee, with a membership evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, voted 10-8 to send Ashcroft’s nomination to the Senate floor, with Sen. Russell Feingold, D.-Wis., the only member to break ranks with his party.

It appears Ashcroft will handily win confirmation by the full Senate, which is expected to vote this week. All 50 Republicans are expected to support the former senator from Missouri, and some Democrats have said they will vote for him. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., also has dropped his threat to filibuster.

Before they voted, Democratic members of the Judiciary panel intensely criticized Ashcroft’s record on abortion, civil rights and gun control, as well as his opposition to some White House nominees. Republicans strongly defended their former colleague and his integrity.

Feingold resisted pressure from advocacy groups opposed to Ashcroft to say he would vote in committee for the nominee despite concerns about his record. It has been a custom for the Senate to approve a president’s nominees to his cabinet, he said. Only nine times in its history has the Senate rejected a nominee to the cabinet, Feingold said. By his vote, he was extending an “olive branch,” but not a “white flag,” to the Bush administration, the Wisconsin senator said.

“I think Senator Feingold showed remarkable courage,” said Shannon Royce, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s director of government relations. “He took the higher ground. He looked at Senate history, and he made a principled decision. He did the right thing, and I think he should be praised for that.

“I really think John Ashcroft will be a great attorney general,” Royce said. “I believe history will look back positively on John Ashcroft as attorney general, and I think some Democrats who voted against him will someday regret it.”

A large coalition of abortion-rights, civil-rights, church-state and homosexual-rights organizations — led by People for the American Way and others — have attacked President Bush’s choice of Ashcroft in a campaign similar to the one that derailed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the late 1980s.

Ashcroft, a member of an Assemblies of God church, has openly confessed his Christian faith and his desire to apply it to his public life. His opposition to abortion, homosexual rights, certain racial desegregation plans and a federal judgeship for Ronnie White, a black judge from Missouri, have been cited as reasons for the vehement opposition campaign, as well as his promotion of policies opposed by strict church-state separationists.

That effort, as well as comments by some opponents in the Senate, have led to charges of religious discrimination. ERLC President Richard Land said Ashcroft is being held to a different standard than the one applied to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in the last election and frequently spoke of his religious faith.

“Much of the opposition to attorney general-designate Ashcroft amounts to nothing less than religious profiling,” Land said. “In the atrocious practice of racial profiling, the police stop people merely because they are African American. In religious profiling, people are dismissed and disqualified merely because they are evangelical Christians.”

Even had the vote been a tie in committee, Ashcroft’s nomination would have gone to the floor under the rules in this session’s evenly divided Senate.

Among the opponents of Ashcroft’s nomination are Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest homosexual-rights group.

In addition to the ERLC, other organizations to endorse Ashcroft include National Right to Life, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council and the American Center for Law and Justice.
(BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN ASHCROFT.