Senators call for GOP 'balance' while vowing 'tough' questions for Ashcroft

WASHINGTON - Among senators who must confirm or reject President-elect Bush's Cabinet choices, Republicans cited a need for more ideological ''balance'' Sunday while Democrats promised to raise ''tough'' and ''troubling'' questions for his attorney general nominee.

Senators in both parties, making the rounds of the talk show circuit, generally agreed that Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., an aggressive champion of religious conservative causes, is likely to be confirmed as top enforcer of the nation's laws.

Yet Republicans such as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told CBS' ''Face the Nation'' that picking Ashcroft, who strongly opposes abortion rights, ''creates a more pressing need for balance with moderates in the Cabinet, some pro-choice people to provide some diversity to offset some of Senator Ashcroft's more conservative views.''

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, agreed, saying ''we'd obviously like to see more pro-choice moderate Republicans in the Cabinet.''

Democratic senators, meanwhile, vowed to challenge Ashcroft's views, primarily on civil rights issues. Ashcroft lost his bid for re-election last month to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. Carnahan's wife will replace Ashcroft in the Senate next month.

''I do not intend to lead a fight against him. I intend to make sure that he is given a far more fair hearing than some have been given in the past,'' Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told ABC's ''This Week.''

''That does not mean it'll be a pushover hearing,'' he said. ''Of course there'll be tough questions.''

Leahy said some of the ''obvious areas of discussion'' for the Judiciary Committee include Ashcroft's and Bush's views on ''enforcing the nation's laws'' and Ashcroft's role in defeating the nomination of Ronnie White, the first black Missouri Supreme Court justice, for a federal judgeship.

Ashcroft is a member of the Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Ashcroft and Hatch are both religious conservatives and past GOP presidential hopefuls who opposed White and joined other Republicans in blocking the appointment of Bill Lann Lee to head the civil rights division at the Justice Department.

Ashcroft came under fire earlier this year after accepting an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, S.C., that until earlier this year had anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon statements on its Web site and forbade interracial dating.

Leahy, who is Catholic, said he did not believe Ashcroft's views include religious or racial bigotry.

''Bob Jones University has referred to both the Mormons and Catholics as being a cult religion. You have a Mormon and a Catholic as the two leaders of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Hatch and myself,'' Leahy said. ''I have never once heard Senator Ashcroft make an anti-Catholic or anti-Mormon or anti-any-religion statement. I think we can lay that one (to rest). Nor have I heard him ever make a racist comment.''

Ashcroft, 58, grew up in Springfield, Mo., as the son of a prominent minister and educator who helped make the Assemblies of God one of the nation's largest Protestant denominations. He enjoys gospel singing and adheres to his faith's aversion to drinking, smoking or dancing.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., told CBS the Senate grants Cabinet picks ''a presumption of correctness'' but there will be ''a lot of questions'' for Ashcroft. Most of those, Graham said, will focus on whether Ashcroft's opposition to White had ''a credible basis'' or ''whether it raises some troubling questions as to a pattern of dealing with issues of minorities.''

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who chose to stay in the Senate after being rumored as a possible Bush Cabinet choice, told CBS that ''while John Ashcroft is probably more conservative than over 95 percent of his fellow colleagues in the Senate, I think he still will be confirmed. I think he's a man of integrity.''

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., echoed that on CNN's ''Late Edition,'' while Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said Ashcroft will be prepared to defend ''a good record.''

Outside the Senate, Ashcroft's nomination faces resistance from liberals, social critics and blacks, some of whom remain deeply skeptical about the legitimacy of Bush's Florida win.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which gave Ashcroft a failing grade on supporting civil rights issues, said it would ''strongly oppose'' his nomination. But the National Council for a Republican Congress said in a statement that Ashcroft supports ''the idea that all Americans should be treated equally without regard to their race.''


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