WASHINGTON — Two leading Senate Democrats announced Friday that they'd support retired federal judge Michael Mukasey to be the next U.S. attorney general, making his approval by the Senate all but certain.
In separate statements, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chuck Schumer of New York said that despite growing opposition to Mukasey in their party they'd vote in his favor Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the nomination.
The announcements ended a down-to-the-wire standoff between the Bush administration and a growing number of Democrats over Mukasey's stance on torture. Earlier in the day, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he'd oppose Mukasey because he refused to classify "waterboarding," an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, as torture.
Feinstein and Schumer said they, too, were concerned about Mukasey's statements about waterboarding, but they said they were more concerned that the Justice Department would be without a permanent leader if the Senate rejected him.
"Judge Mukasey is not my ideal choice," Schumer said. "However, Judge Mukasey, whose integrity and independence is respected even by those who oppose him, is far better than anyone could expect from this administration."
Feinstein echoed his sentiments, saying that Mukasey "is the best we will get, and voting him down would only perpetuate acting and recess appointments."
In public appearances Thursday and Friday to defend Mukasey's nomination, President Bush warned that a Senate rejection would leave the Justice Department without a permanent leader.
Until this 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, including Schumer.
But Mukasey's refusal to declare waterboarding a form of torture stirred up opposition.
"There may be interrogation techniques that require close examination and extensive briefings," Leahy said. "Waterboarding is not among them. No American should need a classified briefing to determine whether waterboarding is torture."
In a written statement Tuesday, Mukasey declared waterboarding "repugnant" and possibly "over the line." But he declined to take a position on its legality, saying he didn't want to render an opinion that would expose government officials who'd approved the technique to possible legal liability.
In subsequent days, all three sitting senators vying for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination said they'd oppose his nomination, as did several other prominent Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The growing Democratic opposition had put Schumer, a vocal administration critic, in an uncomfortable spot. Schumer originally had proposed Mukasey as a replacement for former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and had praised him effusively during the confirmation hearings.
When Democrats began peeling off, Schumer refused to say whether he'd still support his fellow New Yorker.
But Schumer said he met with Mukasey on Friday and was reassured that the nominee would follow a ban on waterboarding if Congress passed pending legislation.
Congress hasn't explicitly banned waterboarding, but the law prohibits "any person in the custody or control of the United States, regardless of nationality or physical location," from being "subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."
Feinstein, who recently broke with her party to provide a crucial vote for another administration judicial nominee, said she struggled with her decision but concluded that Mukasey "will be a strong attorney general and will represent the best interests of the American people."
Mukasey's supporters say the retired judge is in an untenable bind because U.S. interrogators reportedly have waterboarded at least three high-profile terrorism suspects, and if Mukasey declares the technique illegal, he could leave them open to liability.
Human rights organizations counter that Mukasey should be capable of disavowing a technique condemned internationally as brutal and ineffective. The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday called for the rejection of Mukasey's nomination "unless Mukasey states that waterboarding and other extreme interrogations tactics are torture."
"Federal law is clear that waterboarding, as well as all other forms of torture and abuse, are illegal," said Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement.
President Bush has said that the United States doesn't torture, but he's refused to say whether American interrogators have used waterboarding.
ON THE WEB
Read Feinstein's statement.
Read Leahy's statement.
Schumer didn't post his statement online.