Jan. 6, 2005 -- As Senate committees begin hearings on three Cabinet nominations, two of President Bush's choices are expected to win confirmation easily. But Alberto Gonzales, looking to become the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, can expect a tough grilling.
Gonzales, the current White House counsel and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee today after days of controversy concerning legal policy he oversaw regarding how detainees and prisoners of war can be treated.
As the president's top lawyer, Gonzales had a large role in developing much of the White House's post-9/11 terrorism policies. Democrats have attacked a 2002 memo he wrote advising the president that members of al Qaeda and the Taliban were not protected by the Geneva Conventions, which forbid torture of prisoners.
In his opening statement to the Judiciary Committee, Gonzales plans to pre-empt these criticisms. In a prepared text of the statement obtained by ABC News, Gonzales says that if confirmed as attorney general, he will no longer be representing the White House, but will be representing the American people.
"Wherever we pursue justice," he says in the prepared text, "from the war in terror to corporate fraud to civil rights -- we must always be faithful to the rule of law. I want to make very clear that I am deeply committed to the rule of law."
Separate hearings will be held for Margaret Spellings, nominated to succeed Education Secretary Rod Paige, and Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, who would replace Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. Both of these nominees are expected to pass through their hearings easily.
Gonzales on the Hot Seat
Gonzales, however, faces tougher questioning. Since he was tapped to succeed John Ashcroft, he has been dogged by the prisoner controversy.
In a June 22 briefing, Gonzales told reporters his memo was not meant to endorse torture. "Let me just say that throughout the entire government, the directive is clear: no agency is to engage in torture, every agency is expected to follow the law," he said. "All interrogation techniques actually authorized have been carefully vetted, are lawful and do not constitute torture."
In the memo, Gonzales, referring to the war on terror, wrote: "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended Gonzales on Wednesday. "Judge Gonzales is a very trusted adviser to the president who has done an outstanding job in his role as counsel to the president," he said.
The treatment of suspected terrorists is not the only hot-button question expected to arise. Would he reauthorize the provisions of the Patriot Act that expire on Dec. 31, 2005 -- 16 provisions covering foreign intelligence, terrorism investigations and law enforcement surveillance authority in such cases? What are his views on affirmative action and abortion?
Committee staffers said the Gonzales hearings will likely last two days.
Hearings for Other Nominees
Also today, Spellings, the education secretary nominee, will appear before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Spellings, a longtime adviser and confidante of the president, is best known in Washington circles for her role in helping to craft the No Child Left Behind Act. During that process, she managed to garner respect across party lines.
Johanns will appear before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Currently serving his second term as Nebraska governor, Johanns has championed property tax relief, business growth, mental health reform, law enforcement and state autonomy from federal control. Born on an Iowa dairy farm in 1950, he has also led several international delegations encouraging agricultural production and trade.