n February 3, Alberto Gonzales was confirmed as the new U.S. attorney general, despite considerable opposition from Senate Democrats. Just six Democrats crossed the aisle to join Republicans in the 60-36 vote in support of the Gonzales nomination.
The vote reflected the deep split between Republicans and Democrats over the administration's counterterrorism policies and whether those policies led to the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere.
Gonzales, who is the United States' first Hispanic attorney general, previously served as White House counsel. Prior to that, Gonzales was a judge on the Texas Supreme Court; secretary of state for the state of Texas; and general counsel for George Bush while he was governor of Texas.
At first, many Democrats had joined Republicans in praising Gonzales' nomination. However, many Democrats withdrew their support after the initial confirmation hearing, expressing concern over what they termed Gonzales' evasive answers about the administration's policies on the treatment of foreign prisoners.
Gonzales, as head of the Justice Department, will be the lead player in the move to extend several key provisions of the USA Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year. The administration has announced that reauthorization of the Patriot Act is one of the administration's top legislative priorities for this Congress.
On February 15, the Senate unanimously confirmed Michael Chertoff as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge, had previously served as chief of the Department of Justice Criminal Division. In this role, he helped develop the USA Patriot Act, which enhanced the government's surveillance and detention powers. At his confirmation hearing, Democratic committee members questioned him on his views on interrogation and detention of terrorist suspects and his policy-making role at the Justice Department in the post-September 11 era.
Chertoff was the final cabinet secretary to win Senate confirmation since President Bush was sworn in for his second term.
In addition, on February 17, President Bush nominated John Negroponte as his choice to be the first director of national intelligence, a position created by the recently passed intelligence reform bill. Negroponte is a career foreign service officer who has served as delegate to the United Nations and currently as ambassador to Iraq.
The director will coordinate the activities of the CIA and the other 14 intelligence agencies throughout the government, as recommended by the September 11 commission. If confirmed, Negroponte will report directly to the president, and will be the president's primary advisor on foreign intelligence matters and have the power to develop and determine the intelligence budget. He will also give the daily intelligence briefings to the president, which has been done by the CIA director.
House Passes Immigration Reform Bill with Standards for Driver's Licenses
On February 10, the House passed legislation (HR 418) that aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. The bill, known as the Real ID Act of 2005, would tighten driver's license and identity card requirements, make it more difficult for foreign nationals to claim political asylum and easier for governments to deny entry to immigrants, and authorize the completion of a security fence on the Mexican border.
The bill would establish new, stricter standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. Specifically, it would impose new requirements on states to seek proof of applicants' legal residence before issuing driver's licenses. If the states do not comply with the new antifraud guidelines, driver's licenses issued in those states would not be accepted as proof of identity for boarding airplanes, buying guns, or entering federal buildings.
It would require applicants for state-issued identification cards and driver's licenses to prove, and states to verify, the applicant's U.S. citizenship or lawful presence. Except for passports, foreign documents could not be used as proof of an applicant's legal name, date of birth, or other information. Many states accept documents that are easier to manufacture.
In addition, the bill would require that the expiration date for any license or ID card issued to someone in the country on a temporary visa match the visa's expiration date. In cases where the temporary visa does not expire, the license or identification card would have to expire in one year. In all cases, the expiration date would have to be displayed on the cards.
The bill authorizes such sums as are necessary over five years to help states meet the federal driver's license standards. To be eligible for grants, states would have to give other states electronic access to their motor vehicle database.
Proponents of the bill argue that it would make it harder for potential terrorists to travel throughout the country and plot attacks. But some civil liberties groups and other critics say the proposed standards would convert state-issued driver's licenses into national identification cards and actually lead to more unlicensed and uninsured drivers.
Currently, 10 states do not require people to prove that they are in the country lawfully before giving them driver's licenses.
The bill also directs the Department of Homeland Security to develop a strategy for sharing information with federal, state, and tribal government agencies on matters related to border security.
HR 418 now goes to the Senate, where it may face opposition. Much of the bipartisan resistance is focused on the provisions that would make it more difficult for asylum applicants to prove they were being prosecuted in their native countries.
To spur Senate action, House Republican leaders have indicated that they plan to attach the bill to the next must-pass bill, probably the military supplemental appropriations bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) opposes that strategy, arguing that it would allow other immigration-related amendments that would jeopardize both the immigration bill and the military supplemental funding bill. ■