There is not much chance that the full Senate will block the nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to serve as Attorney General. But, as the vote approaches, critics of Gonzales have the potential to garner a stronger vote against his confirmation than they did in one or both of the last two fights over controversial conservative nominees to guide the Department of Justice: Edwin Meese in 1985 and John Ashcroft in 2001.
Thirty-one senators — all of them Democrats — opposed Meese’s confirmation, while forty-two senators — again, all Democrats — opposed Ashcroft.
It would be meaningful if foes of the Gonzales nomination in particular, and of the Bush Administration’s callous approach to civil liberties and international law in general, could muster as many vote against the current nominee as they did against Meese. And, considering the fact that there are fewer Democrats in the Senate now than in 2001, it would be exceptionally significant if they could equal the anti-Ashcroft vote.
Neither prospect is beyond the realm of possibility.
Unlike Meese, who gained a reasonable level of support from a still-substantial caucus of conservative Democrats, and Ashcroft, a former senator who garnered the votes even of some liberal Democrats with whom he had served, Gonzales has very little claim on Democratic support. Additionally, he could lose the votes of one or more Republicans.
Here are the particulars:
* When the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended approval of the Gonzales nomination, it did so along precise partisan lines. Ten Republicans voted for Gonzales, while eight Democrats voted against him. The Democratic unity is significant, as it was lacking in 2001. That year, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the chamber, broke with his fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats. Along with Connecticut’s Chris Dodd and a handful of other Democrats, Feingold has argued that Presidents have a right to select the Cabinet that they want. But Feingold always promised that he would make an exception if a nominee’s record or actions raised serious concerns about ethics or competence. After grilling Gonzales at length during a Judiciary Committee hearing in early January, Feingold said he was not confident that Gonzales would respect the rule of law. Accordingly, he voted against confirming the nominee. The Feingold break is significant, as he has credibility with Democrats who usually refuse to oppose Cabinet nominations. Additionally, Feingold has a measure of across-the-aisle credibility with moderate Republicans who see the Wisconsinite as one of the few senators who tends to rise above partisanship.