updated 2/3/2005 6:29:34 PM ET 2005-02-03T23:29:34

The Senate voted Thursday to confirm White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, setting aside Democratic complaints he helped craft questionable U.S. policies on the treatment of foreign prisoners.

Gonzales, 49, a longtime friend who was President Bush’s legal counsel when he was governor of Texas, became the first Hispanic to be the nation’s top law officer when Vice President Dick Cheney swore him in shortly thereafter in the vice president’s office in the West Wing of the White House.

The vote was 60-36, with all the opposition coming from Democrats. The “no” votes were the second most ever lodged against a successful nominee for attorney general. John Ashcroft, whom Gonzales succeeds, was confirmed 58-42 on Feb. 1, 2001.

“This is a breakthrough of incredible magnitude for Hispanic-Americans,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., calling Gonzales “a role model for the next generation” of Hispanics in this country

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said he expected Gonzales, a former Texas judge, “to help lead the way for the creation of an America that despises hate and bigotry and recognizes that every human being deserves a government that will fight for the dignity and equality of all.”

Other Democrats opposed Gonzales, accusing him of being evasive in his answers to their questions about White House policies in the war on terrorism.

“He was so circumspect in his answers, so unwilling to leave a micron of space between his views and the president’s, that I now have real doubts whether he can perform the job of attorney general,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

“In short, Judge Gonzales still seems to see himself as counsel to the president, not attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the land,” Schumer continued.

Opponents cite interrogation memo
Senate Democrats have used the nomination — as they did with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — to criticize the war in Iraq and the treatment of foreign prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I simply cannot support the nomination of someone who, despite his assertions to the contrary, obviously contributed in large measure to the atrocious policy failures and the contrived and abominable legal decisions that have flowed from this White House over the past four years,” said Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the senior senator.

During his confirmation hearing, some Democrats charged that Gonzales’ January 2002 memo as White House counsel led to the abuse of suspected terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. The memo argued that the fight against terrorism “renders obsolete [the Geneva Conventions’] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

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Pressed by senators on the issue, Gonzales defended the memo and said the treaty’s protections did not extend to al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists, but he declared, “Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration.,”

He told senators that as attorney general he would “ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions.”

Salazar said Gonzales made his position on torture clear. “Torture is illegal and wrong, and that will be the position of Judge Gonzales as attorney general,” Salazar said.

Second nominee hits same hurdle
Democrats have also peppered U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chertoff, Bush’s nominee to be secretary of homeland security, on whether he had a role in approving interrogation methods used on terrorism suspects while he served as a top prosecutor in the Justice Department. Chertoff, now a federal appeals judge in Newark, N.J., maintained that he gave the CIA only broad guidance and never addressed the legality of any specific interrogation technique.

Chertoff also is expected to be easily confirmed, probably next week. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who posed the toughest questions to Chertoff during his confirmation hearing, said he knew of no senator who planned to oppose him.

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