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Senate panel clears way for Mukasey's confirmation as attorney general

WASHINGTON — Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey is expected to be confirmed as the next attorney general as early as next week after a Senate panel gave his nomination the go-ahead on Tuesday.

The 11-8 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee came after two leading Democrats joined nine Republicans to advance Mukasey's nomination to the full Senate. The eight other Democrats on the panel said they opposed Mukasey because he refused to define waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, as illegal torture.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York said Tuesday that they opposed waterboarding, but felt compelled to break with their party out of concern that the Justice Department would be left without a permanent leader. President Bush has threatened to leave an acting attorney general in charge if the Senate rejects his nominee.

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Tuesday that he'll oppose Mukasey because of the waterboarding controversy. Even so, he's expected to schedule a confirmation vote as early as next week.

Mukasey, a 18-year veteran of the federal bench, promised several senators that he would follow a ban on waterboarding if Congress passed pending legislation. Congress hasn't explicitly banned waterboarding, but has prohibited "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment.

Schumer said he believed Mukasey demonstrated "more openness to ending the practices we abhor" than the administration's two previous attorney generals.

Mukasey didn't appease other Democrats. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., dismissed Mukasey's pledge to uphold a waterboarding ban, pointing out that "any such prohibition would have to be enacted over veto of the president."

Until last week, Democrats and Republicans had expected Mukasey's nomination to sail through the Senate because he'd been held up as a compromise candidate who had support from several top Democrats. But Mukasey stirred up opposition when he declared waterboarding "repugnant" and possibly "over the line" but declined to take a position on its legality.

Mukasey said he was concerned about rendering an opinion that would expose government officials who'd approved or used the technique to possible legal liability. Bush has said that the United States doesn't torture, but he's refused to say whether American interrogators have used waterboarding.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican member on the panel, called Mukasey's assertion that he didn't know the details of classified interrogation practices a "flimsy excuse." However, Specter said he concluded that Mukasey "went about as far as he could go" in his explanation of his stance.

In a joint letter, a group of 21 former military and intelligence officials this week urged the full Senate to press Mukasey to be more explicit or to delay his confirmation indefinitely.

"Otherwise, there is considerable risk of continued use of the officially sanctioned torture techniques that have corrupted our intelligence services," the letter read, "knocked our military off the high moral ground, severely damaged our country's standing in the world and exposed U.S. military and intelligence people to similar treatment."

Although the full Senate is expected to confirm Mukasey, Reid predicted a "really heavy vote against him" by Democrats.

Reid also rejected criticism that Democrats have failed to unify in opposition to Mukasey, saying "we're working with the slim majority we have, doing the very best we can."

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