(CNSNews.com) - Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee began setting the stage Tuesday for what is expected to be a fierce philosophical battle over whether former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft should be confirmed as America's next attorney general.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee's ranking Republican, asked his panel to conduct the hearings in a bipartisan fashion urging, "that we begin with a rejection of the politics of division. If we want to encourage the most qualified citizens to serve in government we must do everything we can to stop what has been termed, the politics of personal destruction."
However, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), in his opening statement, left little doubt he'll oppose Ashcroft over a number of issues based on Ashcroft's past performance as U.S. senator, governor of Missouri and attorney general of Missouri.
"Unfortunately and often, he has used the power of his high office to advance his personal views in spite of the law of the land. The vast of majority of Americans support vigorous enforcement of our civil rights and those laws and the Constitution demand it. Senator Ashcroft, however, spent significant parts of his term as attorney general of Missouri and his term as governor strongly opposing school desegregation and voter registration in St. Louis," Kennedy said.
"A vast majority of Americans believe," Kennedy continued, "in access to contraception and a woman's right to choose. And our laws and constitution demand it. Senator Ashcroft does not. And his intense efforts have made him one of the principal architects of the ongoing right wing strategy to dismantle Roe v Wade and abolish a woman's right to choose."
"Actions speak louder than words and based on his repeated actions over many years, it's clear that Senator Ashcroft's heart is not in some of the most important of the nation's laws," Kennedy concluded.
During his round of questions, Kennedy hammered away at Ashcroft's record on school desegregation and quoted the Economist magazine as saying Ashcroft's 1984 gubernatorial primary campaign, "quickly degenerated ... into a contest over who was most opposed to the plan for voluntary racial desegregation in St. Louis schools. Mr. [Gene] McNary claimed that Mr. Ashcroft had not done enough to defeat the plan in court. Mr. Ashcroft countered that Mr. McNary was a closet supporter of racial integration," Kennedy charged.
Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was distressed over accusations of bias and racism against Ashcroft.
"If John Ashcroft is so bad, then why did the people of Missouri elect him as attorney general, governor and senator. Would the majority of Missouri citizens support such a biased and extreme man to serve and represent them for well over two decades? I don't think so," Grassley said.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that while Ashcroft has a fine family and a record of integrity, he wants to find out from the nominee why he rejected Missouri State Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for a federal judgeship. Durbin doesn't think White deserved the fate he received by being rejected on the Senate floor. Durbin accused Ashcroft of leading that effort.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he would vote for Ashcroft's confirmation because he thinks the Justice Department needs "new, positive leadership." Sessions is also confident that Ashcroft will vigorously enforce the nation's gun laws, if confirmed as attorney general.