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Gonzales wins confirmation, will be first Hispanic attorney general

WASHINGTON—The Senate confirmed Alberto Gonzales as the first Hispanic attorney general Thursday, ending a bitter three-day debate that focused on his controversial role in pushing the legal limits on the treatment of prisoners.

The Senate voted 60-36 to confirm Gonzales, President Bush's longtime friend and White House counsel, to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general. Vice President Dick Cheney swore Gonzales in shortly before 6 p.m. at the White House.

The 35 Democrats and one independent who opposed Gonzales exceeded the 13 who opposed Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state. Four years ago, 42 Democrats opposed Ashcroft for attorney general.

Six Democrats voted for Gonzales, and he had the unanimous support of Republicans.

Republican leaders called Gonzales a highly qualified nominee who renounced torture and became an unfair target of Democrats who oppose Bush's policies.

"He is a total professional with a high regard for the law, and he has been subjected to groundless criticism," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said before the vote.

Democrats said Gonzales made serious mistakes that led to abuse of prisoners at U.S.-run detention facilities in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq. They also said he evaded questions during his confirmation hearing and lacked the independence ever to disagree with the president.

"It's hard to be a straight shooter when you're a blind loyalist," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Democrats criticized Gonzales for key legal advice he gave to Bush, including scaling back Geneva Convention protections for detainees, deciding that some anti-torture laws don't apply to foreigners held overseas and asserting that a president can override U.S. laws and authorize torture in "unusual circumstances."

They noted that the Supreme Court had struck down Gonzales' recommendations on holding U.S. citizens as enemy combatants without access to lawyers and declaring that the prison camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was outside the reach of U.S. courts.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who voted against Gonzales, reminded colleagues that he voted for Ashcroft and Rice, despite major policy differences.

"But John Ashcroft said he was unequivocal in enforcing laws he disagreed with, while Alberto Gonzales is saying that the president can be above the law," Feingold said.

Republicans said Democrats used Gonzales' confirmation to attack Bush's policies and lay the groundwork for opposition if Gonzales is ever appointed to the Supreme Court.

"He has been charged with monstrous offenses," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "His opponents are blaming him inappropriately for what happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

Several Republicans suggested that Democrats risked a backlash for opposing the first Hispanic named to a top Cabinet position.

"Every Hispanic American is watching," warned Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Gonzales, 49, grew up in Humble, Texas, the son of Mexican-American migrant workers. He became a top corporate lawyer and Bush's chief counsel when Bush was Texas' governor. He also served on the Texas Supreme Court.

One Democrat who voted for Gonzales, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, cited his own experience "breaking barriers" as the first Jewish member of a major-party presidential ticket when he ran with Al Gore in 2000.

"I have some sensitivity to this," Lieberman said. "The fact that he is the first Hispanic is not a reason to vote for him, but it gives me an extra measure of encouragement about the kind of attorney general he will be."

Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, the Senate's only Hispanic Democrat, voted for Gonzales but chastised Republicans "for playing the race card."

"Let's not use this vote to divide the nation," he said.

Several Democrats said their vote was one of principle, not politics.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., recalled that his father, former Sen. Thomas Dodd, was executive trial counsel at the war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders after World War II.

"Many at that time called not for due process of law, but summary executions," Dodd recalled. "But even these most despicable and depraved human beings were given an opportunity to retain counsel and testify in their own defense."

Dodd added: "The world learned that this nation will not tailor its eternal principles to the conflict of the moment."

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(The six Democrats who voted for Gonzales are Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.)

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Alberto Gonzales

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041110 GONZALES bio

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