Mukasey Passes Key Senate Test

Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey listens as President Bush, not pictured, announces him as his nominee for attorney general, replacing Alberto Gonzales, Monday, Sept. 17, 2007, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-8 Tuesday to advance Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey's nomination, virtually ensuring confirmation for a former judge ensnarled in a bitter controversy over waterboarding.

The White House welcomed the committee's vote.

"We appreciate the vote of senators on the Judiciary Committee to forward the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the full Senate," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional attorney general at this critical time."

Mukasey is expected to easily win confirmation by the full Senate, probably as soon as next week.

Mukasey lost support of most of the Democrats on the committee who initially favored him after he said he didn't know enough about waterboarding to say if it was torture and against U.S. and international law, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss.

However, two key Democrats accepted his vow to enforce any law Congress might enact against waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique used in interrogations.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called Mukasey's promise disingenuous. "Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president," said Leahy.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who suggested Mukasey to the White House in the first place, countered that the nominee's statements against waterboarding and for purging politics from the Justice Department amount to the best deal Democrats could get from the Bush administration.

"If we block Judge Mukasey's nomination and then learn in six months that waterboarding has continued unabated, that victory will seem much less valuable," he wrote in an op-ed in Tuesday's editions of The New York Times.

Announcements of support for Mukasey by Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, virtually assured the former federal judge the majority vote he needed to be favorably recommended by the committee to replace Alberto Gonzales as the chief U.S. law enforcement officer.

Gonzales resigned two months ago in the midst of congressional investigation over his handling of the dismissal of eight U.S. prosecutors. Democrats said the firings were politically motivated. The dispute mushroomed into doubts about the credibility of Gonzales, a longtime friend and adviser to President Bush.

In tightly choreographed statements of support for Mukasey last week, Feinstein and Schumer essentially eliminated the chance that Democrats could kill the nomination in committee.

Many Democrats came out in opposition to Mukasey after he refused to say unequivocally that waterboarding is tantamount to torture and thus illegal under domestic and international law.

Mukasey rankled Democrats during his confirmation hearing by saying he was not familiar with the waterboarding technique and could not say whether it was torture.

Even Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel's ranking Republican, called that explanation "a flimsy excuse" and suggested instead that Muksaey declined to call waterboarding illegal torture because he wanted to avoid putting at legal risk U.S. officials who may have engaged in the practice.

But Specter said that outlawing waterboarding rests with Congress. He disclosed that he had talked with Mukasey a day earlier and received an assurance that the nominee would back up any such legislation and quit if Mr. Bush ignores his opinion.

Thus, Specter said, Mukasey had won his support.

Legal experts cautioned that if Mukasey called it torture, that effectively could have constituted an admission that the United States engaged in war crimes. It could also commit him to prosecuting U.S. officials even before he takes office.