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Burden of Proof

Bush Labor Nominee Linda Chavez Closes Skeleton Closet, Withdraws From Confirmation Process

Aired January 10, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LINDA CHAVEZ, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY-DESIGNATE: So long as the game in Washington is a game of search-and-destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, Bush's nominee for labor secretary closes her skeleton closet and withdraws from the confirmation process. Now the Capitol Cabinet SWAT team turns their focus to a potential attorney general. Rejecting former senator John Ashcroft could open a new chapter in Washington's political dogfights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY-DESIGNATE: The United States Senate has never defeated a Cabinet member on the basis of ideology alone. That's a longstanding bipartisan tradition. I understand that these liberal special interest groups may not be as interested in those bipartisan traditions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

This winter, Cabinet nominees for the George W. Bush administration are learning a cold lesson in Capitol Hill politics. The Washington welcome wagon doesn't bring cookies, and its reach into your past is both extensive and intrusive.

Yesterday the first casualty of the confirmation process threw in the towel. Linda Chavez withdrew her name for Labor Department secretary after two days of fending off stories about an illegal immunity who lived with her in the early 1990s.

Joining us today here in Washington are Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign, and Michael Franc with the Heritage Foundation. In the back, Ashley Dean (ph), Kelly Cox (ph) and Tom Jipping of the Free Congress Foundation.

Tom, we go right back to you. It's not often I get to start in the back row, so let me go right to you and ask you...

THOMAS JIPPING, FREE CONGRESS FOUNDATION: Sure.

COSSACK: ... this. Was it right that Linda Chavez withdrew her nomination?

JIPPING: Well, that was -- that was her personal call, as she described, and for the reasons that she described. I think her characterization of the -- of the broader picture was correct, and that is that this -- that these are -- this sort of personal destruction tactics, which is now leveled at Cabinet members -- it's been leveled at other kinds of nominees in the past, but now leveled at Cabinet members, is really to a new level now. And it does threaten the possibility that good people will be willing to serve. It ups the ante. It pushes the envelope further. And I hope that it's not a kind of an ongoing campaign against the Bush administration that opposed his election, is going to oppose his appointees...

COSSACK: Tom...

JIPPING: ... and won't accept his...

COSSACK: Let me interrupt you a second because we have to go to Jeanne Meserve with some news.

(INTERRUPTED BY COVERAGE OF A LIVE EVENT)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: We're back. And we've been talking about the Cabinet nomination and the withdrawal of Linda Chavez for her position.

Ralph, I want to talk to you. We heard -- what seemed like hours ago -- from Tom, who indicated his reasons that -- and we talked -- and one of the things he brought up was this notion of finding good people who will not serve. But is that necessarily -- and I don't mean to demean Ms. Chavez in terms of whether or not she's a good person. I'm sure she's a good person, and I -- and I believe her when I -- when she says that she was motivated by compassion. But does that necessarily apply to Linda Chavez, in the sense that there is something specific and articulable, if you want, you can at least put your finger on and say, "You know, you should have -- you shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have hired this person. You knew she was illegal. You perhaps misled some other people." Is that a good reason to keep her out?

RALPH NEAS, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: Roger, first of all, I think everyone here hates to oppose an executive branch for any nomination. We've only opposed four in the last 20 years. But I think it's important to make a distinction here with Linda Chavez. Number one, there was going to be a struggle, a confrontation with respect to her views and whether they were so far out of the mainstream to disqualify her to enforce the Labor Department laws. Number two, there was a question of whether she broke the law with respect to wages and with respect to immigration laws. What happened, though, is we never got really to debate that and find out all the facts because, number one, apparently she didn't fully disclose things to the Bush nomination in a timely fashion, and that became a problem. And very importantly, apparently, the press and the FBI were looking into whether or not she coached someone who was going to be interviewed by the FBI. Those are serious issues. I think that forced her to withdraw.

COSSACK: Michael, is it important whether or not -- and Ralph brought up -- he said, "Well, we never really got to the issues of whether -- the issue of whether or not her issues or whether her beliefs were so far out of the mainstream that -- being that she therefore couldn't serve...

MICHAEL FRANC, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Right.

COSSACK: ... as a -- on the -- as a Cabinet member for -- for President Bush. But in fact, suppose her views were out of whatever the mainstream really is. So what? Is that a way to -- should he -- should she be disqualified for that?

FRANC: Well, Roger, what's out of the mainstream here is the notion that you can sabotage and sink a Cabinet nomination purely on policy grounds. As Ari Fleischer said going into this segment, that's never happened before. So it's always been in the past personal foibles or some kind of ethical problem that has -- that's happened, as you alluded to with Linda Chavez.

To go into this category here and say just because of someone's views on an issue that happened to be in comportment with the president, that's -- that's out of the mainstream in and of itself. And I think they have an uphill battle -- one thing I've been struck by is the difference in tone you get from liberal groups on the outside and those senators who will actually have the voting cards and have to vote on the nomination. There's been -- John Ashcroft is a panda bear. John Ashcroft is a very nice man. He made very good friendships across the aisle in the Senate when he served there. As an attorney general and as a governor in Missouri, he rose to the top of his profession, became head of the National Association...

COSSACK: And you bring...

FRANC: ... of Attorney Generals and head of the NGA, the National Governors Association. He is a very qualified man, maybe about as qualified as we've ever had for attorney general.

COSSACK: You bring up a good point. Let me ask Elizabeth something.

Elizabeth, we saw what happened to Linda Chavez, and now we hear that John Ashcroft is -- is probably going to, whatever his views may be -- is probably going to sail through the nomination committee. Is there a different standard for men and for women? And let me -- let me bring this up. We saw what happened with Zoe Baird, and we've seen what happened in the past with the use of using aliens as domestics. But what about the men, who never seem to get charged or tarnished with anything? And we never hear about hypothetical use of perhaps aliens for other purposes -- you know, handy-people or gardeners or whatever the case may be. Is there a different standard?

ELIZABETH BIRCH, THE HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: I hope not. I mean, I hope the standards are the same, whether we're talking about men or women or Democrats or Republicans. And in fact, I hope that parents and heads of households are making decisions together about nannies for their children or how their -- additional help they may need in the house.

I think the problem -- what happened to Linda Chavez is not that she made a mistake. And I don't think it's ever a problem to make a mistake, it's how you handle a mistake. We had a Bush transition team. They were on a very short timeline. They don't need surprises. And I think that Linda Chavez did not serve them well by letting them know even the appearance of impropriety that they may have needed.

I also want us to get much deeper into our analysis because I'm concerned that everything will now be reduced to liberal cabal versus Bush nominee. In fact, I think that President-elect Bush has selected some members for his Cabinet that are measured and historic and even some are refreshing. And I think we need to go much deeper her. The fact is, is that Senator Ashcroft will come across with a very gentle and fine demeanor. He's actually liked by a number of his colleagues.

I think the areas of concern are twofold. This is not just a conservative person who holds a set of values and an ideology that one would think of as basically conservative. I think all organizations have expected President-elect Bush to select conservative members for his Cabinet. This is a man...

COSSACK: But the question I want -- I want you to focus on is, does it matter? I mean, short of the fact that we can't -- that there's nothing to say that he has acted in an illegal manner or an irrational manner, doesn't Governor Bush get to choose who he wants?

BIRCH: I think...

COSSACK: President Bush get to choose who he wants.

BIRCH: I think -- absolutely, I think there needs to be a lot of deference to a new president, but the concern is this. When you look at the nominations process in which John Ashcroft has engaged, our concern is that he has actually judged people based on labels and categories. And I can highlight something I know a lot about and that is the nomination of James Hormel, who was dismissed out of hand by Senator Ashcroft simply because he was gay, a label, without regard to his history or career or record.

There is also a concern that some of the positions are not just conservative but very extreme. And it is this position...

COSSACK: All right...

BIRCH: ... the attorney general...

COSSACK: All right...

BIRCH: ... that is the important one.

COSSACK: Let me take a break.

Tom, I understand you have a response, and I'm going to get back to all of you on this subject, but let's take a break first.

Up next: other confirmation battles on the Bush administration landscape and how they'll impact the 43rd president's early tenure in the White House.

Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: What major U.S. city is being sued by the EPA for spilling sewage more than 2,000 times over the past five years?

A: Los Angeles.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: We're back, and we're talking about the Cabinet nominations of Linda Chavez, who has since -- who's since -- who yesterday withdrew her nomination, of course, and Senator John Ashcroft, who is nominated to be the attorney general.

Tom, I promised you a chance to respond. I find it interesting that Elizabeth said "No, absolutely, we give great deference, but this -- this Senator Ashcroft, his views are so extreme"...

JIPPING: Well...

COSSACK: ... "that perhaps it crosses some kind of a line."

JIPPING: You know, folks who fought George Bush's election tooth and nail are hardly in the position to be the arbiters of what's, you know, extreme or acceptable as far as conservative nominees go. I mean, they -- they opposed Bush's election, and they'll oppose his appointments. So I -- you know, them judging...

COSSACK: Well, but who -- but who...

JIPPING: Them judging what's...

COSSACK: But wait. Who better...

JIPPING: ... what's extreme and what's not...

COSSACK: ... to oppose? I mean, you know... JIPPING: But this is precisely the problem. To say that somebody is extreme and therefore shouldn't be confirmed at this stage is exactly the wrong way to do it. If a Cabinet member is qualified and meets, you know, basic, you know, standards of ethics and integrity, it's...

COSSACK: Period.

JIPPING: ... up to George Bush...

COSSACK: Period.

JIPPING: ... to determine whether...

COSSACK: Period. Ethics and integrity, period, and views are...

JIPPING: It's -- it's up to...

COSSACK: ... irrelevant.

JIPPING: ... the president to determine whether he's extreme, mainstream, whatever. And there's a way to evaluate it. It's called the next election.

COSSACK: And that's right. You would say the voters will decide...

JIPPING: Absolutely.

COSSACK: ... whether or not he put good people...

JIPPING: Absolutely. It's up...

COSSACK: ... or not good people.

JIPPING: ... to George Bush to decide whether John Ashcroft is too extreme or in the mainstream.

COSSACK: Ralph, does -- so you know...

NEAS: Two points...

COSSACK: I would just say Tom's -- Tom's view would cut off the inquiry relatively soon. "Is there anybody who has anything on this man that's demonstrable, other than you don't like the way he thinks? No? OK, next guy."

NEAS: First point on the election. I can assure you the vast majority of Americans who voted for George W. Bush would be surprised when they learn that George W. Bush appointed someone as attorney general or named someone to be a nominee who authored a Human Life Amendment that would ban abortions in cases of rape and incest and would ban many contraceptives, including the pill and IUDs. This is a person with an extreme record. He's to the right of Jesse Helms, according to the "National Journal," even according to the John Birch Society and other conservative organizations. What we're saying is, yes, you give extraordinary deference, and the general rule...

COSSACK: But answer Tom's...

NEAS: ... is competence and character...

COSSACK: Answer Tom's statement when he says, "You know what? The next -- there'll be a decision made on whether or not the American public agrees or disagrees with what's going on. It's called the next election."

NEAS: But we have checks and balances. And advise-and-consent responsibility is a check and a balance to a president who does something so confrontational, so divisive, so far outside of the mainstream in this country that senators get a chance to do something about it.

JIPPING: But neither the Senate nor the president's opponents get to pick his Cabinet.

COSSACK: All right, let me...

BIRCH: No...

COSSACK: Let me go to...

JIPPING: I agree with that. Oh, I agree with that.

COSSACK: Let me go to Mike for a second. Let me have Mike respond.

FRANC: Well, one thing conservatives agree on here is that presidents, no matter what their ideological orientation, ought to be able to appoint people both at the Cabinet level and sub-Cabinet level to enact their policies.

COSSACK: Right.

FRANC: In 1993, Congress tried to cap that number of people that Clinton could appoint who are basically political appointments. We opposed that. We felt Bill Clinton should be able to bring people into his administration who would carry out his -- his agenda. The same thing is true today with respect to Governor -- President-elect Bush. He ought to be able to appoint people who reflect his ideas. John Ashcroft is really in the mainstream here, head of the National Governors Association, head of the National Association of Attorney Generals, a very respected governor, a very respected official in implementing and enforcing the law. The policy argument doesn't fly.

COSSACK: What -- what -- let me -- what about this. What about the fact that Senator Ashcroft is expected to sail through, although he has a great many critics, and he's expected to sail through this nominating period, and part of it is that there's a deference given by senators to a fellow senator? What does that say about advise and consent? BIRCH: There is a very old tradition in this country of collegiality with the body that is called the U.S. Senate. There is tremendous loyalty among and between senators, and that's why very few have been derailed, and that's the given and that's the context. But we do have a robust process here in which citizens participate. And if a president-elect alone could establish a Cabinet, we wouldn't have a Senate process, just to reiterate what Ralph has said.

The point here is that a full and fair record should be brought to light. That has not always been done in some of the nomination processes that Senator Ashcroft has even been involved in. And that will be part of the record. And once the record is out there and it is full and clear and senators are informed, they can make their decision.

We're simply saying take a closer look. A lot of these nominations in which -- that he derailed need to be parsed and analyzed. And I think it will reflect...

COSSACK: What if -- what if -- what if -- what if President- elect Bush said -- I think I've called him president, governor and president-elect now, finally -- President-elect Bush finally said, "You know what? I know all of this about" -- and I'm asking you, Tom. "I know all of this about Senator Ashcroft. I certainly understood who he was and what he was before I nominated him. Other than that, folks, this is who I want."

JIPPING: Well, that is what he said. He -- I mean, John Ashcroft's record, a very distinguished one that is in the mainstream...

COSSACK: Whether it is or not, you know, President-elect Bush...

JIPPING: President -- George W. Bush knew what that...

COSSACK: ... says, "As far as I'm concerned, he's OK with me."

JIPPING: George W. Bush knew what that record was. He knew John Ashcroft's record as a former governor, and he did nominate him. So by doing so, that is what he said. You know, when...

(CROSSTALK)

JIPPING: When senators do look at John Ashcroft's nomination, you'll have Democratic senators who worked with Republican John Ashcroft on things like racial profiling and all kinds of other things -- they know that he will work together...

COSSACK: All right...

JIPPING: ... with people who he doesn't agree with.

COSSACK: Ralph, I want to give you the last word. We only got a few seconds.

NEAS: As someone who worked for two Republicans senators, I respect senatorial courtesy. But being consistent with your constituents, your country and the Constitution is important and trumps senatorial courtesy. All we want is to hear...

COSSACK: All right, that's...

NEAS: ... the evidence and have a chance...

COSSACK: ... all the time we have today.

Thanks to our guest, and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," give your view on the state of Washington's confirmation process. Was Linda Chavez the victim of the politics of personal destruction? Log in and tune in at 3:00 PM Eastern time.

And I will be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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