Skip to content

Senate Democrats Want Ashcroft Memos

Senate Democrats are pushing for a floor vote, possibly as early as this week, on their effort to compel Attorney General John Ashcroft to turn over Justice Department memoranda regarding legal opinions on torturing prisoners of war.

Hoping to put the entire Senate on record regarding one of the Bush administration’s most controversial figures, Judiciary Committee Democrats won assurances from Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) that he will push the Ashcroft subpoena issue onto the floor.

“If we cannot complete our efforts satisfactorily in the committee, we will look for the appropriate vehicle and do it on the floor,” Daschle said Thursday just before a party-line 10-9 vote in Judiciary turned back the Democratic subpoena request.

Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) dismissed the issue out of hand, calling the subpoenas a “fishing expedition” and a “dumb-ass thing to do.” Hatch and other Judiciary Republicans instead have said they would like to give Ashcroft and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales more time to meet the committee’s request that they turn over the documents, a request that was made at Ashcroft’s June 9 appearance before the panel.

Ashcroft rejected those requests for the memos and gave no legal reasoning for his action, prompting Judiciary Democrats to consider pursuing a contempt of Congress sanction against the attorney general.

Democrats ultimately opted against offering a contempt resolution at the committee level, deciding that a party-line rejection of that issue would serve little purpose. “You can’t proceed without a majority on the committee,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the contempt issue.

Democrats were particularly outraged at what they considered Ashcroft’s stonewalling them because many of the documents were already leaked to media outlets and posted on the Internet. Pushing a subpoena, however, is seen as less partisan but will still give the Democrats the ability to put Senators on record regarding Ashcroft, whose tenure at the Justice Department has been so reviled by liberals that attacks on the attorney general regularly drew as much applause on the Democratic primary campaign trail as those on President Bush.

“The matter is going to come up to the full Senate, one way or the other,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Republicans called the attempt to force a floor vote on the matter a political stunt designed to please the party’s base.

“That’s ridiculous. There’s a process to do this,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a Judiciary member. Cornyn said Democrats were losing sight of the overarching goal of finding out what led to the prison abuses at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in favor of an attempt to embarrass Ashcroft.

“It’s being overcome by political motives,” Cornyn said.

It’s unclear which vehicle Democrats will use to try an amendment for the subpoenas. Aides noted that all amendments are already filed for the Defense Department authorization bill.

If the Defense bill is finished early this week, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is expected to move to either a class-action bill or the Defense appropriations bill. Class action may be the riper target for Democrats, avoiding the likely attacks of politicizing the Pentagon’s spending bill at a time of war if they were to offer the subpoena amendment on that measure.