Ashcroft passes first test

Feingold breaks ranks, vote goes to the full Senate; some Republican Party unfaithful see too much government in "faith-based" charities; Plus: Tuesday morning's briefing.

Published January 30, 2001 12:41PM (EST)

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to send John Ashcroft's nomination to be the next attorney general to the Senate floor. With the exception of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., it was a party-line vote, with every Republican endorsing Ashcroft as a tough, principled law enforcer, while Democrats denounced him as a right-wing extremist who could not be trusted to enforce laws with which he did not agree.

In the meantime, Democrats seem to be dedicated to presenting a semi-united front against Ashcroft, though there's little apparent support for a filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., went to the floor to denounce Ashcroft's nomination at length in response to reports that President George W. Bush is getting impatient with the delays in filling the post.

Bush may not have long to wait. While Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has predicted that a final Ashcroft vote will likely take place on Thursday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that the vote could be as early as Wednesday.--Alicia Montgomery [4:10 p.m. PST, January 30, 2001]

President Bush is getting the enthusiastic applause from religious conservatives expected for his initiative to give faith-based organizations more opportunities to earn grant money from the federal government to run social service programs. But there are lonely conservatives out there left out in the cold.

"To the extent that this gets money out of the hands of the government and back into the private sector, that's a good thing," said Bob Levy, senior fellow at the Center for Constitutional Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. But Levy thinks Bush is just perpetuating a social welfare system that continues to deplete the resources of the taxpayers without constitutional authorization. "That lack of authorization applies no matter whether the organization is based in federal government or in a church."

For the "less government" crowd, the initiative is not a good idea. Not everyone with reservations about Bush's faith-based initiative would go as far as Levy did in criticizing the plan, though they remain concerned about how well the program can be managed. Andrew Walker, communications director of the Capital Research Center, a policy research group that has critically examined the growth of the liberal nonprofit sector since the Great Society, endorses Bush's stated objectives to give churches more control in maintaining the social safety net, but hopes that the change in approach doesn't lead to a bloated bureaucratic system that oversteps its mission and overspends federal funds.

"We don't want to move away from the stereotypical liberal welfare state and simply replace it with a conservative welfare state," he said. --Alicia Montgomery [3 p.m. PST, January 30, 2001]

Washington novice President Bush seems to have learned quickly how to keep faith with his supporters. Despite a barrage of criticism by Democrats, Bush and the GOP have stayed in lock step behind the nomination of John Ashcroft to head the Justice Department, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Ashcroft Tuesday afternoon.

That vote was originally expected to take place last week, but the Democrats won a six-day delay to enable Ashcroft to complete written responses to more than 300 questions from senators. The delay had the secondary effect of allowing Democratic interest groups more time to come up with a compelling case against the nominee. While more questions have been raised about Ashcroft's record on discrimination against gays and his honesty during testimony before the committee, there's still no smoking gun that could give his ideological foes in the Senate adequate cover for sinking the nomination.

Consequently, few Democrats doubt that Ashcroft will ultimately win confirmation, and the threat of a filibuster on the Senate floor also seems to be fading. But that hasn't stopped many Democrats from standing against the nomination. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that he will vote against Ashcroft, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the same. The prevailing wisdom is that Democrats will muster 35 to 40 votes against the nominee in the Senate, enough in theory to make Bush think twice before putting up ultraconservative nominees for the Supreme Court in the future.

Supreme Court experience has buoyed another Bush ally to a possible Justice Department post. Ted Olson, who successfully argued then candidate Bush's recount case before the Supreme Court, is reportedly the front-runner to become solicitor general. Whoever holds that position decides which cases the Justice Department should pursue in the Supreme Court, and personally argues the most important cases. Though Olson has a substantial résumé and the regard of many Republican stalwarts, Democrats are likely to question whether the position is payback for essentially winning the election for Bush in court.

Some critics have speculated that the president's faith-based charity initiative is another method of repaying his most ardent supporters, particularly religious conservatives. And civil libertarians wonder aloud whether Bush's plan to give billions of federal dollars to social service programs run by religious organizations breaches the constitutional separation between church and state. Even supporters of the initiative have warned Bush that such institutions cannot solve all of America's social ills, and that government shouldn't try to use the plan to shirk its own responsibilities.
-- Alicia Montgomery [6:15 a.m. PST, Jan. 30, 2001]

By Salon Staff

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