WASHINGTON (AP) – Alberto Gonzales won Senate confirmation Thursday as attorney general despite Democratic accusations that he helped formulate White House policies that led to overseas prisoner abuse and was too beholden to President Bush to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.
The Senate voted 60-36 to put the first Hispanic ever into the job, with all of the "no" votes coming from Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont. Last week, 12 Democrats and Jeffords voted against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation.
Gonzales replaces John Ashcroft, who won more Democratic support four years ago despite contentious stances on a number of issues. Eight Democrats voted for Ashcroft, while six voted for Gonzales.
He was sworn in around 6 p.m. EST as the nation’s 80th attorney general by Vice President Dick Cheney in a private ceremony in the White House, Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.
Republicans and some Democrats praised Gonzales’ life story: the grandson of Mexican immigrants who worked his way up to being President Bush’s top lawyer in the White House.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., the first Cuban-American senator, even broke with Senate tradition and praised Gonzales in Spanish on the Senate floor on Wednesday. "This is a breakthrough of incredible magnitude for Hispanic-Americans," he said in English.
Democrats praised Gonzales as well, but many said they couldn’t look past his participation in administration policies they said had led to abuses that occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They also complained that he refused to answer their questions on how those policies were created inside the White House.
"Mr. Gonzales was at the heart of the Bush administration’s notorious decision to authorize our forces to commit flagrant acts of torture in the interrogation of detainees," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
At first, many Democrats had joined Republicans in praising the former state judge who traveled with Bush to Washington after the president’s 2000 victory.
"When Mr. Gonzales was nominated several weeks ago, I didn’t know a single member of this body, Republican or Democrat, who had expressed any intention to vote against this nominee," said Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
But some Democrats turned against him after he sidestepped questions on what advice he gave Bush and other administration officials on the interrogation methods that could be used on suspected terrorists or witnesses.
Some Democrats contended that Gonzales’ January 2002 memo as White House counsel led to the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pressed on the issue, Gonzales defended language in which he labeled as "quaint" some of the Geneva Conventions’ human rights protections for prisoners of war and said they did not extend to al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists.
But he also declared, "Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration." He told senators that, as attorney general, he would "ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."
Democrats also expressed concern that Gonzales was too much of a Bush loyalist.
"He was so circumspect in his answers, so allied with the president’s position on every single issue, there was almost an eagerness to say, ‘I’m going to do exactly what the president wants,’ that I worry Judge Gonzales will be too willing to toe the party line," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Gonzales shouldn’t be a scapegoat for what happened overseas, Republicans said. They also insinuated that the Democrats wanted a big vote against Gonzales to keep Bush from making him the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee if a position comes open.
"Here is a good man who has demonstrated tremendous ability through his life," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "The fact is, politics is getting in the way of his confirmation."
The Democrats who voted for Gonzales were Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Democrats argued that they had a right to closely question all nominees, whether supporting them or not.
"I think it is a mistake for this chamber to allow the race card of being Hispanic to be used to destroy or erode the institutions that we have here," said Salazar.