Gonzales approved by Senate Judiciary panel, Rice confirmed

By Sara Fritz, CongressDaily

Over unanimous Democratic opposition, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved the nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general.

The 10-8, party-line vote followed two hours of debate dominated by Democrats, each of whom argued at length that Gonzales cannot be trusted to hold his old friend, President Bush, accountable to the law.

"It's hard to be a straight shooter if you are a blind loyalist," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who noted Gonzales had been "unwilling to leave even a micron of space between himself and the president" during his confirmation hearings.

Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., said Republican committee members, most of whom were silent during Wednesday's meeting, would take the opportunity to defend Gonzales in debate on the Senate floor.

Gonzales is expected to be confirmed without Democratic votes. He now joins the flow of Cabinet nominees heading to the Senate, which confirmed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on an 85-13 vote and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt by voice votes. Additionally, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning unanimously recommended that Energy Secretary-designate Samuel Bodman be confirmed.

Senate Judiciary member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, scolded Democrats for opposing Gonzales, who would become the first Latino attorney general.

"You may not agree with Judge Gonzales," he said, "but, my gosh, this man deserves to be confirmed. Every Hispanic in America is watching how this man is being treated."

In response, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he was moved by Gonzales' story of rising from humble beginnings to become the president's confidante. "We wish we could vote the story and not the nominee," he said.

But Kennedy noted that while the nominee has condemned torture of prisoners captured in the war on terrorism, he waited until after he was nominated to the Cabinet to repudiate an August 2002, Justice Department memo allowing U.S. interrogators to apply pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death."

Democrats said they were forced to vote against Gonzales, even though many of them described him as a personal friend, because the administration's tolerance of torture had harmed America's reputation in the world and put captured U.S. soldiers at risk. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Gonzales made matters worse by stonewalling the committee during his testimony, refusing to explain his views on important legal issues. "His views are not clarified, but are even obfuscated more," she said.

Reading from the Constitution, Feinstein noted that Congress was invested by the founding fathers with the power to write the terms of war, and she suggested the committee should draft "a new law of war" that would clarify the United States' support for the Geneva Convention.