This week's expected face-off on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be the next US attorney general signals how aggressively Democrats on Capitol Hill will oppose the White House - even at the risk of alienating Hispanic supporters.
Long rumored to be a candidate for a Supreme Court vacancy, Mr. Gonzales enjoys broad support in the Hispanic community. His personal story - up from a humble home with seven siblings and no running water - is inspiring, and his confirmation would mark the first time a Latino has held a top cabinet position.
Hispanic groups ranging from the National Council of La Rasa, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Hispanic National Bar Association back the nominee. "This is a milestone for the community," says Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for La Rasa.
But Gonzales's role in promoting a shift in US policy regarding the torture of detainees is giving opponents a momentum that many did not expect. While Republicans have the votes to move confirmation, the floor fight could be a preview to the tone of judicial confirmation fights expected in the 109th Congress.
All eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against the Gonzales nomination in a first test of support last week. The 10-to-8 vote stunned human rights activists, who tapped furiously on their Blackberries as the Democratic "no" votes rang out. Even Democrats on the panel said they were surprised that the vote on their side was unanimous. At a meeting the night before the vote, only two Democrats on the panel said they planned to vote against the nominee.
"This is resonating across the country," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts after the vote. Democrats then delayed a vote on the floor of the Senate last week to see if the rest of the caucus could "get on board," he added.
In often intense questioning, Senator Kennedy and other Democrats pressed Gonzales on his role in an August 2002 memorandum on the rules of torture, which was officially repudiated on the eve of his nomination hearing. The memo, written at Gonzales's request, defined the threshold of physical pain qualifying as torture to be "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."
Critics say the memo opened the door to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and that, despite the later retraction, the Gonzales nomination sends the wrong signal to human rights groups worldwide.
"We heard from democracy activists all over the world distraught by the US record on detainees. They are saying: 'What can we say to our own governments if the US has authorized its military to take such actions against civilians?' " says Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office of Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which is opposing the Gonzales nomination.
Even in opposition, Senate Democrats were careful to credit Gonzales's personal qualifications and achievements. "I agree with President Bush when he said that in many ways Mr. Gonzales embodies the American dream. The American dream, however, involves more than the ability of the poor and dispossessed to gain power and prestige," said Kennedy. It also involves respecting "the dignity and worth of all human personality," he added, citing Martin Luther King Jr. - a standard violated by torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, he added.
While acknowledging these concerns, Hispanic activists supporting the nomination say they are looking broadly at the impact of the Justice Department on a range of issues affecting their community, including affirmative action and enforcement of immigration laws. "We know Gonzales," says Ms. Navarrete. As chief counsel to the president, "he was accessible and made himself and the administration more accessible to Latino organizations across the country."
Especially important to many Hispanic activists was Gonzales's advice to George W. Bush, then Texas governor, not to follow the lead of California's Proposition 187 by cutting off illegals from public services, including education for their children. "Texas was a logical next place for this to happen, and we understand that Alberto Gonzales had a big impact in Bush's decision not to do that," says Navarrete.
Still, there is some opposition in the Hispanic community to the nomination. In an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Melvyn Montano, the first Hispanic adjutant general in the Air National Guard, opposed the nomination on the grounds that Gonzales's advice on torture would endanger US troops. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund has withheld its endorsement.
"I reject the notion that Hispanics should loyally support the nomination of a man who sat quietly by while administration officials discussed using torture against people in American custody, simply because he is one of our own," he wrote. He got involved in this fight after a call from a human rights group, he said.
Republicans say Democrats are "tone deaf" on the level of support for this nominee in the Hispanic community. Opposing the Gonzales nomination "is an exit strategy for the Democrats in '06," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas. Despite opposition, Democrats say they are not planning to filibuster this nomination.