Undecided Schumer May Be Key to Mukasey's Chances

Sen. Charles Schumer, foreground, said he is
Sen. Charles Schumer, foreground, said he is "wrestling" with the decision of whether to recommend a full Senate confirmation vote for Michael Mukasey. Schumer talked to reporters about Mukasey and other topics yesterday with fellow Senate Democrats, from left, Harry Reid, Richard Durbin and Patty Murray. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingontpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

As Democratic opposition builds over attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey, no Democratic lawmaker has found himself in a tighter spot than Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who had eagerly recommended the former federal judge as a consensus candidate.

After Mukasey refused to say whether an interrogation technique called waterboarding amounts to illegal torture, Schumer has watched a growing number of his colleagues announce their opposition to the judge.

Schumer, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the furor, said in an interview yesterday that he is now "wrestling" with whether to vote against a nomination that he was instrumental in bringing about. He compared the controversy to the 2005 nomination battle over Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

"From this administration, we will never get somebody who agrees with us on issues like torture and wiretapping," Schumer said at one point, suggesting an argument in favor of Mukasey, who faces a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday. "The best thing we can hope for is someone who will depoliticize the Justice Department and put rule of law first."

But Schumer said minutes later that his mind is not made up: "He's the best we can get, but that doesn't necessarily ensure a yes vote. I thought John Roberts was the best we could get, but I voted no."

The outcome of Schumer's internal struggle could prove pivotal to Mukasey's chances, as a growing number of Democrats, including four other members of the Judiciary Committee, have announced their opposition to the nominee, as have all four senators who are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

The deteriorating political situation led President Bush yesterday to mount a vigorous defense of Mukasey, saying that Democrats are subjecting the former federal judge to standards that no candidate for attorney general could meet.

"It's wrong for congressional leaders to make Judge Mukasey's confirmation dependent on his willingness to go on the record about details of a classified program he has not been briefed on," Bush said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general. That would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war."

But key Democrats continued to signal opposition to the suddenly controversial nominee. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said his position is not "much of a secret," saying Mukasey's attempt at explaining his view on waterboarding has left his nomination in doubt.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced his opposition yesterday, becoming the fourth Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to promise a no vote. Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who originally predicted easy confirmation but has since become deeply critical of Mukasey, is expected to announce his position today in Vermont.

All nine Republicans on the committee are likely to support Mukasey, but if all 10 Democrats oppose the nominee, the confirmation would die in committee.

Republicans privately say that the nominee's prospects hang on a few votes, particularly those of Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has broken ranks with her party in the past. Should Schumer and Feinstein side with other Democrats in opposition, Judiciary Republicans are likely to seek to forward the nomination with a neutral or negative recommendation to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company