Published on Friday, February 4, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Senate OKs Gonzales as Attorney General
Democrats Register Significant Protest with 35 No Votes
by Zachary Coile
WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed Alberto Gonzales as the nation's first Latino attorney general Thursday, but Democrats registered a significant protest vote over his role as White House counsel in developing a widely condemned administration policy on the use of torture.
Gonzales was approved on a 60-36 vote -- the smallest margin of victory for any Bush appointee this year -- making the 49-year-old former Texas Supreme Court justice the most controversial member of the president's second- term Cabinet.
The fight over his nomination also foreshadowed larger conflicts anticipated later this year between Congress and the Justice Department over renewing key parts of the Patriot Act and the department's upcoming decisions about whether to charge hundreds of detainees in U.S. custody.
Fifty-four of the Senate's 55 Republicans voted to confirm Gonzales, with one GOP senator absent. Six Democratic senators also backed Bush's nominee: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ken Salazar of Colorado.
Thirty-five Democrats, including both of California's senators, and one independent, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, opposed Gonzales' nomination.
Four years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft was confirmed on an even narrower 58-to-42 vote because of concerns over his record on civil rights and abortion rights. Eight Democrats of 50 supported Ashcroft -- a slightly higher percentage than the six of 44 backing Gonzales.
The bruising victory for the president's choice to lead the Justice Department was a surprise for the White House, which had calculated that Democrats would have a difficult time opposing a Latino nominee with a stellar resume and a remarkable life story: the son of Mexican migrant farmworkers from Humble, Texas, who became the first member of his family to go to college, graduated from Harvard Law School, was named one of the first Latino partners in a prestigious Texas law firm and was appointed by then-Gov. George Bush as his counsel and later to the Texas Supreme Court.
But Senate Democrats, in debate over his nomination this week, said Gonzales' compelling biography was not enough to allay their concerns over his role in the administration's anti-terror legal policies, particularly his role in developing an August 2002 memo that approved the use of torture of terrorist suspects under certain conditions.
"It really is an inspiring story," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Thursday. "But embodying the American dream is not a sufficient qualification to be attorney general of the United States."
The administration was clearly nervous about the explosive potential of the torture controversy. Only a week before Gonzales' confirmation hearing, the Justice Department published a new legal definition of torture that repudiated the August 2002 memo, calling the use of torture "abhorrent both to American law and values and international norms."
The decision by Democrats to intensify their battle against Gonzales' nomination came after his Jan. 6 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. While Gonzales came across as modest and affable, he infuriated the panel's Democrats by giving what they said were evasive answers about his role in crafting the torture policy.
"He simply refused to say without equivocation that the president is not above the law," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "The Judiciary Committee and the American people deserve to hear whether the next attorney general agrees that the president has the power to disobey laws as fundamental to our nation's character as the prohibition on torture."
Before the hearing, Republican sources close to the White House told the New York Times that Gonzales' nomination as attorney general was part of a political strategy to position him as a future Bush nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The theory was that Gonzales could burnish his resume by leading the Justice Department and prove himself to some GOP leaders, who view him as too liberal on issues such as abortion and affirmative action, by taking conservative stands. Gonzales' backers also hoped the debate in the Senate would vent any unflattering revelations -- such as his involvement in the torture memos -- and leave Democrats with little ammunition for a future confirmation fight.
But the strategy may have backfired.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., talked with fellow lawmakers earlier this week about a possible filibuster of the nomination -- an idea that was dropped when Democrats could not muster the 41 votes needed for the blocking tactic. At a Senate Democratic Caucus luncheon this week, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., urged his colleagues not to filibuster but to generate as many "no" votes as possible to send a message to the White House.
On Wednesday, Durbin took to the Senate floor with a blistering critique of the nominee, saying Gonzales "helped to create a permissive environment that made it more likely that abuses would take place" at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
Republicans said the heated rhetoric obscured Gonzales' role in the torture policy. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the policy had been asked for by Gonzales on behalf of the intelligence agencies, and while Gonzales attended a few meetings where it was discussed, the policy was written by Justice Department lawyers.
"From that participation, he has been charged with monstrous offenses," Specter said Thursday. "This is a man who has an extraordinary record -- but it hasn't been the subject of analysis today."
Supporters and critics played the race card during the debate, citing the various Mexican American and Latino groups that either endorsed or opposed his nomination.
But Salazar, the newly elected Colorado Democrat who is Latino, urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to keep the issue of race out of the debate.
"It is a mistake for this chamber to allow the race card of being Hispanic to be used to destroy or erode the institutions we have in the United States Senate," he said. "Let's not use this moment to divide this country, and let's not use this moment to divide this chamber."
The 36 senators who voted against confirming Alberto Gonzales as attorney general:
-- Democrats: Akaka, Hawaii; Bayh, Ind.; Biden, Del.; Bingaman, N.M.; Boxer, Calif.; Byrd, W.Va.; Cantwell, Wash.; Carper, Del.; Clinton, N.Y.; Corzine, N.J.; Dayton, Minn.; Dodd, Conn.; Dorgan, N.D.; Durbin, Ill.; Feingold, Wis.; Feinstein, Calif.; Harkin, Iowa; Johnson, S.D.; Kennedy, Mass.; Kerry, Mass.; Kohl, Wis.; Lautenberg, N.J.; Leahy, Vt.; Levin, Mich.; Lincoln, Ark.; Mikulski, Md.; Murray, Wash.; Obama, Ill.; Reed, R.I.; Reid, Nev.; Rockefeller, W.Va.; Sarbanes, Md.; Schumer, N.Y.; Stabenow, Mich.; Wyden, Ore.
-- Independent: Jeffords, Vt.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle