The U.S. Senate last week confirmed John Ashcroft as attorney general and Gale A. Norton as interior secretary in President George W. Bush's new cabinet.
Ashcroft, who received a 58-42 affirmative Senate vote, is an ardent conservative. He pledged during his Senate confirmation hearing to respond objectively on issues coming before the federal Justice Department.
But liberals and moderates—including those concerned about abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and federal funding of the arts—have serious doubts. Those doubts translated into vocal opposition and a narrow senate approval, requiring all 50 Republican senators to vote for Ashcroft, along with eight Democrats.
The close tally basically sent a message to both Bush and Ashcroft that the new attorney general would be closely monitored both when he appoints his chief assistants, and when human rights and arts issues come before him. Democratic leaders said the vote also signifies that they'll oppose any further nominations of conservatives.
A former U.S. senator from Missouri, Ashcroft received "F" grades from arts organizations that follow lawmakers and their votes on federal arts funding and other arts issues. He introduced and supported legislation to scrap the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Ashcroft lost in last year's Missouri senate race to the state's governor, Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash late in the campaign. Carnahan went on to win the popular vote. His widow, Jean, was appointed to fill his six-year senate term. Ashcroft's loss seemed to open him up as an immediate choice for Bush's attorney general. Jean Carnahan voted against his appointment, as did both of New York's senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton.
The arts record on Norton, a former state attorney general in Colorado, was not clear. Neither Americans for the Arts nor the American Arts Alliance had returned calls by press time. Norton will head the federal Interior Department, whose budget includes funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The chief swipe at Norton during confirmation hearings came from environmental groups and senate Democrats who voiced concern about her conservation record as attorney general. However, she received heavy approval at 75-24 from senators. She's the first woman to hold the interior secretary post.