Senate Democrats angrily denounced White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday as an advocate of prisoner torture but said they would not block his confirmation as attorney general.
The minority Democrats briefly considered but quickly abandoned procedural delays to prevent a vote on Gonzales. Instead, they railed against President Bush's top lawyer for his role in administration legal policies that they said allowed the torture of detainees in Iraq. But they consented to a vote, likely tomorrow, at which Gonzales is expected to be confirmed.
In the first of three days of debate on the nomination, the chamber split along party lines. Republicans, who have a 55 to 45 edge on Democrats and enough votes to confirm Gonzales, spoke of his biography: a son of migrant farm workers who climbed from poverty to White House counsel. Democrats acknowledged his compelling life story but asserted that he had been arrogant in his responses to the Senate when questions were asked about administration memos justifying torture.
Ultimately, Democrats concluded they had neither the votes nor the political stomach to block confirmation of Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic to hold the nation's highest law enforcement office. After a bruising debate last week followed by the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as the first black woman to be secretary of state, some Democrats were concerned that they would be perceived as opposing qualified minority candidates. At a private luncheon yesterday, freshman Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who is Hispanic, defended Gonzales to Democratic colleagues.
Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the minority leader, said a "low" forecast was that 25 or 30 Democrats would vote against Gonzales, but it appeared yesterday Gonzales was in danger of receiving even more than the 42 "no" votes John D. Ashcroft got in 2001, the most opposition ever to a nominee to head the Justice Department.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the hostility his nomination has provoked, Gonzales reopened discussions yesterday about meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus after earlier resisting such a meeting. The group has declined to endorse Gonzales, sending a letter to Senate leaders last week saying that Gonzales's office had informed the caucus it would "have to wait until after he was confirmed as attorney general before being granted a meeting." As of last night, a meeting had not been scheduled.
In contrast to the Rice confirmation, in which a majority of Democrats voted in favor, the opposition party appeared almost entirely unified against Gonzales.
"Mr. Gonzales is at the center of a torture policy that has run roughshod over the values that Americans hold so dear," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said on the floor.
Kennedy repeatedly mocked Gonzales, saying "he can't remember" his role in the prisoner abuse matter. "It's hard to imagine a more arrogant insult to the constitutional role of the Senate in considering nominations," Kennedy said.
Gonzales testified to the Judiciary Committee that "torture and abuse will not be tolerated" but said he could not recall key details of his involvement in the production of an August 2002 memo that narrowly defined the tactics that constitute torture. He also declined to repudiate an administration assertion that the president has the authority to ignore anti-torture statutes on national security grounds.
Republicans argued that Gonzales has clearly condemned torture, but they spent more time pointing to the candidate's life story. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) set up a large photo of Gonzales on an easel on the floor.
"To have this man, who has come from nowhere, from the most humble of circumstances, who typifies the struggle every immigrant family to this country has gone through, to not give him this opportunity when he is fully qualified for it, I think would be a travesty," Hatch said.