WASHINGTON — The Judiciary Committee advanced Attorney General designate Michael Mukasey’s nomination to the Senate floor Tuesday, virtually ensuring confirmation for a former judge ensnarled in bitter controversy over terrorism-era prisoner interrogations.
The 11-8 vote came only after two key Democrats accepted his assurance to enforce any law Congress might enact against waterboarding.
The White House and Senate Republicans called for a swift confirmation vote, which is expected by the end of next week.
“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.”
Though Mukasey is expected to easily win confirmation by the full Senate, Democrats and some Republicans were far from satisfied with his answers on torture, presidential signing statements and executive power.
Feinstein, Schumer vote for
Mukasey’s assurances on torture that won over Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer was disingenuous, according to Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
“Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president,” said Leahy.
But 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.
Feinstein, D-Calif., said her vote for Muksaey’s confirmation came down in part to practicality. If Mukasey’s nomination were killed, she said, Bush would install an acting attorney general not subject to Senate confirmation and make recess appointments to fill nearly a dozen other empty jobs at the top of Justice.
“I don’t believe a leaderless department is in the best interests of the American people or of the department itself,” Feinstein said. Bush, she added, “appointed this man because he believes he is mainstream.”
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Support for Mukasey from Schumer and Feinstein virtually assured the former federal judge the majority vote he needed to be favorably recommended by the 19-member committee. He was expected to win confirmation handily, and the vote is likely before Thanksgiving.
Many Democrats came out in opposition to Mukasey after he refused to say unequivocably that so-called waterboarding — an interrogation technique that makes the victim believe he is drowning — 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, of Pennsylvania, said that outlawing waterboarding rests with Congress. He revealed 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 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.
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