Let's All Work Together Once We've Nuked Bush's Cabinet

Washington's new and much ballyhooed spirit of bipartisanship was dealt a stunning blow on Jan. 9 when Linda Chavez, President-elect George W. Bush's pick for Labor Secretary, withdrew. But as Chavez went quietly into the night of might-have-beens to quell the furor over her support for an illegal alien in the early 1990s, a cheer went up at the offices of the People for the American Way. There, Director Ralph G. Neas is working overtime to organize a coalition of interest groups to battle the Bush agenda.

With Chavez out of the way, Neas and his allies are out for bigger game: Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft. And even if Ashcroft survives the Senate confirmation process, he will have helped Neas and like-minded liberals reconstitute the coalition that waged war on conservatives during the Reagan/Bush era. Included are some 200 interest groups that comprise the core of the Democratic base, such as Big Labor, the NAACP, and the Sierra Club. These are many of the same organizations that in 1987 persuaded the Senate to reject U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Now, fearful that Bush will name a Bork clone to a Supreme Court vacancy, the Left is re-arming.

ESCALATION. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League, blames Bush for being a divider not a uniter. "The President-elect threw down the gauntlet," she says. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, however, faults special-interest groups for fomenting "a showdown that could make bipartisanship a lost cause."

Pro-choicers say Ashcroft can't be counted on to enforce abortion-rights laws. African Americans fear he would trample civil rights. Trial lawyers worry that he would weaken product liability laws. And while the goal of these groups is to defeat Ashcroft, they also want to give Bush a taste of what's to come if he nominates conservative ideologues to the high court. "They're getting ready for the Supreme Court fight," says GOP strategist Bill Dal Col.

Largely dormant during the Clinton years, the Left reenergized for November's elections. Last year, liberal groups increased memberships, turned out the vote, and raised some $62 million to help elect Democrats. Now they're tapping into lingering unrest from the Presidential race. "We have a strong, experienced, angry constituency," says Nan Aron, president of the social activist group Alliance for Justice.

Ashcroft critics claim they have 32 votes against his confirmation. An additional 20 senators, 6 of them moderate Republicans, could be in play. Liberal groups are counting on heavyweights such as Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to play key roles.

The strategy is risky. A no-holds-barred campaign against Ashcroft could force the Left's allies into a political corner: If they don't oppose the former senator from Missouri, they alienate supporters; if they do, they anger the GOP and jeopardize their legislative agenda in an evenly divided Senate. Another danger: Voters are fed up with Washington bickering, and Democrats who lead the charge against Ashcroft will be portrayed by the Bushies as divisive partisans.

Conservatives are already mounting a counterattack. Pro-Ashcroft radio ads were set to begin running in three states on Jan. 11, including Vermont, home to the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy. He plans a Jan. 16 confirmation hearing.

For a few short weeks, it appeared that the tradition of allowing a new President to have his Cabinet picks would return to fashion. But with Chavez gone and Ashcroft on the firing line, all that talk about coming together for the good of the country is rapidly coming to grief.

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