The Senate voted 60 to 36 to confirm Alberto Gonzales as attorney general Thursday, but only a handful of Democrats backed him after days of often strident debate over the administration's torture policies for terrorism suspects.
Gonzales, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now assumes one of the government's most prominent posts with President Bush's strong endorsement, but also trailed by accusations related to the administration's war and terrorism policies. With only six Democrats voting aye -- the smallest level of minority-party support in decades -- the Senate action suggested that tensions between the two parties rival those of the Vietnam war and Watergate eras.
Within minutes of the vote, Bush congratulated Gonzales by phone, and Vice President Cheney swore him in as attorney general.
The Senate vote culminated weeks of debate -- including three days on the Senate floor -- that focused on Gonzales's role in administration policies that Democrats say led to the torture of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. The nominee, a longtime friend of the president, was the White House counsel at the center of internal discussions in 2002 on how aggressively U.S. agents could interrogate terrorist suspects without violating applicable laws against torture.
GOP senators defended Gonzales, sometimes angrily, saying Democrats had distorted his record in order to attack Bush's Iraq policies. Some Democrats "have gone on at great length about what they misleadingly allege is the Bush administration's torture policy and how Judge Gonzales somehow acted to condone torture," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on the chamber floor. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Hatch said opponents blamed Gonzales "for a memo he did not write, prepared by an office he did not run, in a [Justice] department in which he did not work, that gave advice President Bush did not follow."
But a string of Democrats said Gonzales, when testifying last month, made unconvincing claims of not recalling his role in memos that narrowly defined torture and led to abuses such as those at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. 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 in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said, "The policies of this administration, which in some cases Judge Gonzales has championed and in other cases willingly acquiesced in, have constituted a sad chapter in our nation's history. This administration's willingness to evade and sidestep our historic commitment to the rule of law is unfortunate indeed and I fear that a vote for this nominee would be interpreted as condoning those reprehensible policies."
Not since 1925, when the Senate twice rejected attorney general nominee Charles B. Warren, has a nominee received as few minority-party votes as Gonzales did, according to Senate historians. Four years ago an evenly divided Senate voted 58-42 to confirm John D. Ashcroft, with eight Democrats joining all 50 Republicans in backing the outspoken and often controversial former senator.
Most attorneys general have been confirmed easily, sometimes unanimously. Aside from Ashcroft, the closest votes in recent decades involved Edwin Meese III (R), confirmed 63-31 in 1985, and Griffin B. Bell (D), confirmed 75-21 in 1977.
All 55 Republican senators voted for Gonzales except Conrad Burns (Mont.), who was absent. The six Democrats who voted for him were Mary Landrieu (La.), Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Kenneth Salazar (Colo.). All but Lieberman are from states that Bush carried in November.
Three Democrats -- Max Baucus (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) -- did not vote. The remaining 35 voted no, as did Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.).
Moments before the roll call, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said some Republicans "have tried to smear anyone who has voiced concern about this nomination." He said many Democrats opposed Gonzales because of his "continued adherence to flawed legal reasoning regarding torture, a stubborn commitment betraying seriously poor judgment." Also "deeply troubling," he said, "is the nominee's lack of independence from the president."
But Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said Democrats want to ignore "that George Bush won the election."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost to Bush, said Gonzales "committed grave errors in formulating the administration's detention and interrogation policies, which have put American troops in greater danger. American presidents for decades have believed in the Geneva Conventions because they protect American troops captured by the enemy. It's a mistake to choose as our nation's chief law enforcement officer someone who called these protections 'quaint' and opened a Pandora's Box that has tarred America's image in the world and placed our troops at even greater risk."