Democratic Defections Clear Path For Mukasey

Sen. Patrick J Leahy's decision to vote against Michael Mukasey's nomination as attorney general was upstaged by statements from two fellow Democrats.
Sen. Patrick J Leahy's decision to vote against Michael Mukasey's nomination as attorney general was upstaged by statements from two fellow Democrats. (By Alden Pellett -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

The nomination fight over attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey effectively came to an end yesterday, as two key Senate Democrats parted from their colleagues and announced their support for the former judge despite his controversial statements on torture.

The orchestrated announcements by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) virtually guarantee that Mukasey will be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, to be followed by his likely confirmation in the full Senate later in the month.

The developments mark an important political victory for President Bush, who mounted a spirited and aggressive defense of Mukasey in recent days. They also underscore the pitfalls facing Democrats as the party struggles to stake out an independent policy on national security issues during a presidential campaign season.

A growing number of Democrats, including the four senators running for president, declared their opposition to Mukasey this week after his repeated refusal to say whether an interrogation technique known as waterboarding amounts to illegal torture under U.S. law. Mukasey called the tactic "repugnant" but said he could not assess its legality without access to classified material.

Feinstein and Schumer said in written statements that, while they were troubled by Mukasey's equivocation, they concluded the former federal judge is the best nominee Democrats could expect from the Bush administration.

Schumer -- a Democratic stalwart who had recommended Mukasey to the White House as a consensus candidate -- said Mukasey told him in a private meeting yesterday that he would enforce any anti-waterboarding law passed by Congress. Current law explicitly bans the practice within the Defense Department but not elsewhere.

"I deeply esteem those who believe the issue of torture is so paramount that Judge Mukasey's views on it should be the sole determinant of our vote," Schumer said. "But I must respectfully disagree."

Schumer said that "the Justice Department is a shambles" and that he hopes Mukasey, a former chief federal judge in New York, can "restore the department."

Feinstein said Mukasey is "not Alberto Gonzales," referring to the former attorney general who resigned in September in the wake of the firings of U.S. attorneys and other scandals that rocked the Justice Department. "Rather, he has forged an independent life path as a practitioner of the law and a federal judge," she said.

Along with nine Republicans' backing, Schumer and Feinstein's support would give Mukasey at least 11 yes votes on the 19-member Judiciary panel, which would send his nomination to the full Senate.

The late-afternoon announcements overshadowed a news conference held less than two hours earlier by the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who said he will vote against Mukasey. "There may be interrogation techniques that require close examination and extensive briefings," Leahy said. "Waterboarding is not among them."

Waterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to a board, tilting him so that his head is below his feet and pouring water over a cloth draped over his face to simulate drowning. It has been prosecuted as torture by the U.S. military since the Spanish-American War but was used by the CIA on three prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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