President-elect George W. Bush's attorney general nomineee, John Ashcroft, was denied a red carpet welcome from his former Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee when his confirmation hearings began Tuesday.
In the course of hours of contentious questioning, Democrats grilled Ashcroft on his long conservative record in Congress, his decisions on voting rights and school desegregation and the tough treatment he dealt to President Clinton's judicial appointees on ideological grounds. Republicans, in turn, praised Ashcroft and scorned the Democrats as prisoners of special interests, though some conservatives acknowledged that the left-leaning coalition of anti-Ashcroft groups has been winning the public relations war.
Ashcroft himself packed more concern about civil rights into his opening remarks than he managed to convey in his decades-long political career, perhaps to counter charges that he has been hostile to African-American interests. He also assured the panel that his strongly held religious views would not conflict with his duties as the nation's top cop.
Aside from the partisan verbal catfights, the proceedings were largely bereft of drama, with the exception of a midhearing outburst by four men chanting "Ashcroft kills!" The more passionate displays of opposition and support were confined to the sidewalk outside the Senate office building where the hearings were held.
Less sound and fury has attended the nominations of other Bush Cabinet picks, such as Housing and Urban Development nominee Mel Martinez and Secretary of the Treasury-designate Paul O'Neill, both of whom will be questioned by Senate panels on Wednesday. Christie Todd Whitman, Bush's pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, is likely get relatively more scrutiny because environmentalists believe she has been too cozy with business interests. Yet even secular saint Colin Powell, the nominee for secretary of state, is facing some tough questions, focused on his policy priorities and personal finances.
While the hearings captivate serious political junkies, the rest of Washington is preparing to welcome the Bush caravan and throw a maximum-security yet fun-filled inaugural. As the president-elect pulls up stakes in Texas and heads for Washington Wednesday, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 70 percent of Americans give him high marks on the transition, while 40 percent of the public -- particularly Democrats and blacks -- continues to believe that he didn't really win the presidential election.
-- Alicia Montgomery [6 a.m. PST, Jan. 17, 2001]