The panel split 10 to 8 in favor of Ashcroft. The vote came after Democracts delayed it by a week after raising questions about Ashcroft's conservative views on issues such as abortion, civil rights, gun control and homosexuality.
All the committee Republicans voted in favor of Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri. He also gained the support of a single Democratic committee member, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who resisted pleas from some Democratic colleagues to oppose Ashcroft.
The vote came shortly after 5:30 p.m., near the end of a day in which the Senate confirmed Gale Norton as secretary of the interior and Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ashcroft's nomination was by far the most controversial of the Bush's controversial cabinet choices.
Senate GOP leader Trent Lott said he hoped the full Senate would vote on Ashcroft before congressional Republicans leave Washington on Thursday for a weekend retreat.
Ashcroft needs 51 votes for confirmation, and Lott said he expects 60-70 votes for the former Missouri senator. At least some Democrats are expected to vote for Ashcroft, but 35 or so may vote against his confirmation to signal Bush that he'd face a tough confirmation battle should he ever nominate someone as conservative as Ashcroft to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, two more Senate Democrats - Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the party's ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York - said they would vote against Ashcroft.
"John Ashcroft's unyielding and intemperate positions on many issues raise grave doubts both about how he will interpret the oath he would take as attorney general to enforce the laws ... and about how he will exercise the enormous power of that office," Leahy told the Senate.
But Leahy also said he would not support a filibuster, diminishing chances Democrats would try to block Ashcroft by forcing the White House to muster 60 votes to move the nomination. However, Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy, who first floated the idea of a filibuster during Ashcroft's confirmation hearings two weeks ago, has not ruled out the parliamentary move, his spokesman said.
Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota also has said he would not support a filibuster, but has not disclosed how he will vote on the nomination itself.
Clinton, D-N.Y., said at a news conference that Ashcroft's "record and his views placed him on the distant shores of American jurisprudence."
Meanwhile, the liberal People for the American Way took out full-page advertisements Tuesday in 11 newspapers aimed at getting senators in Connecticut, the Dakotas, Maine, Louisiana and Wisconsin to vote against Ashcroft.
Some senators targeted by the new $260,000 ad campaign have already said they intend to vote for him, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Wisconsin's Feingold voted for Ashcroft Tuesday, while Herb Kohl, also a Democrat, said he plans to vote against the nominee.