WASHINGTON — With one Democrat crossing party lines, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 Tuesday to send the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general to the full Senate. A final vote in that body is expected Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted 75-24 to approve Gale Norton as Interior secretary, despite bitter opposition by environmental groups. Also, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was approved 99-0 to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, saw the close vote on Ashcroft not just as an attack on the former senator, but as a warning by liberals to President Bush that they will bitterly fight any conservatives he nominates as judges.

"It's clear that they're really trying to send a message that they're going to give a rough time to anyone who has conservative viewpoints," Hatch said after the vote.

Historically, the Senate has not vigorously attacked former senators, such as Ashcroft, who are nominated to high posts, especially based on personal ideology. Hatch said such days are now over, "no question about it."

"(Liberal Democrats) are sending a marker that they're not going to allow people of the other persuasion to have much of a chance," Hatch said.

Hatch had been mentioned as a possible Bush nominee for any vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court. As a longtime senator, the Utahn was seen as having a better chance than most conservatives for confirmation.

Hatch downplayed such chances after the vote Tuesday, saying, "I'm not even in the game."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only committee Democrat who voted for Ashcroft, was among those directly saying that even senators who are conservatives should not expect easy confirmation in the future.

"I'm not at all sure this kind of deference will be given any more on lifetime federal judicial appointments," he said.

Feingold said he voted for Ashcroft to extend an olive branch to the administration. Nevertheless, he gave a blistering speech that raised questions about whether Ashcroft would enforce civil rights, abortion and gun laws. Ashcroft has expressed personal and religious opposition to these laws.

Hatch said Republicans appear to have the 51 votes needed for Senate confirmation of Ashcroft, though membership in the body is split 50-50 between the parties. Four Democratic senators have announced they will vote for Ashcroft. Democrats opted not to wage a filibuster against him.

Hatch denounced attacks on Ashcroft as "an unyielding effort to redefine this man of unlimited integrity."

He told senators, "You have worked with him and know him to be a man of his word. He is not the man unfairly painted as an extremist by the left-wing activists who have reportedly threatened senators in their re-election bids if they vote for his confirmation."

But Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said Ashcroft's "30-year record of intense opposition on so many critical issues involving civil rights, women's rights, gun control and nominations speaks volumes and demonstrates, clearly and convincingly, that he is the wrong person to be attorney general."

Similarly, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "Ashcroft's views and history of zealous advocacy on issues like civil rights, gun control and choice put him so far outside the mainstream that I am unconvinced . . . he will be the impartial, balanced decision-maker we need."

Meanwhile, Whitman and Norton, who is former attorney general of Colorado, sailed through the Senate much more easily than originally predicted, despite opposition from most major environmental groups.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., acknowledged he conducted the Norton hearings with an eye toward showing Democrats why they should oppose her. But he said she convinced him that she should be confirmed, and he urged fellow Democrats to vote for her.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said during Senate debate on Norton, "I am an enthusiastic supporter of Gale Norton. She understands that we can . . . protect the environment and protect the economy" at the same time.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who worked with Norton 15 years ago when both were attorneys in the Interior Department, also praised her Senate supporters "who looked past the specious criticisms and rhetoric spewed by her detractors."

Meanwhile, Hatch said Bush has an excellent chance of passing his tax-cutting plan.

"He's doing it the right way: a bipartisan way," Hatch said. "I do think he will pass it."

Hatch was among members of both parties from congressional committees that oversee tax law whom Bush invited to the White House to discuss his tax plans.

"I agree with him 100 percent. It's a very wise plan," Hatch said afterward.

Bush had more good news Tuesday for his tax cut plan when the Congressional Budget Office boosted its projection of the federal surplus to $3.12 trillion over the next decade.

"He made clear that we need a tax rate reduction to stimulate the economy, and that we need to pay down the debt and still do our priority items" such as improving pay and benefits for the military, Hatch said..

Hatch added that Bush "was complimented from all sides. Everyone was very friendly, and most expressed appreciation for the way he is approaching his economic plan."

Hatch said that consulting closely with Congress as Bush develops and pushes his plan builds good will.

"I think people want to work together. The 50-50 (party) split in the Senate could lead to more cooperation rather than less. At least that's my hope — but the president is approaching this in the right way," Hatch said.


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