WASHINGTON — Michael Mukasey drew closer to becoming attorney general Friday after two key Senate Democrats said they would vote for him despite his refusal to say whether waterboarding is torture.
The decision by Sens. Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein to back President Bush's nominee came shortly after the chairman of the committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced he would vote against Mukasey, a former federal judge.
"This is an extremely difficult decision," Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, adding that Mukasey "is not my ideal choice."
In announcing her support for Mukasey, Feinstein, D-Calif., said "first and foremost, Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales," referring to the former attorney general who resigned in September after months of questions about his honesty.
Including Leahy, five of the Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats had said they would vote against Mukasey's confirmation after the nominee earlier this week refused to say that waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, is torture and therefore illegal.
But with nine Republicans on the panel, Schumer and Feinstein's support for Mukasey virtually guarantees that a majority of the committee will recommend his confirmation when it votes on it next Tuesday.
Leaders in both parties have said they expect Mukasey to get at least 70 votes when the full, 100-member Senate votes on his confirmation. But Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had said he would not bring it up for a vote without Judiciary Committee action first.
Schumer's announcement followed a private meeting Friday with Mukasey to discuss waterboarding.
"I deeply oppose it," Schumer said of waterboarding. "Unfortunately, this nominee, indeed any proposed by President Bush, will not agree with this. I am, however, confident that this nominee would enforce a law that bans waterboarding."
Schumer, who was Mukasey's chief Democratic sponsor, said the retired judge told him that if Congress passes a law banning waterboarding "the president would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law." Schumer said Mukasey said he would enforce any congressional ban on the controversial interrogation method.
Human Rights Watch called Schumer and Feinstein's support for Mukasey "extremely disappointing." Jennifer Daskal, the group's senior counterterrorism counsel, criticized the two senators for "supporting a nominee for the position of America's chief law enforcement officer who refuses to call waterboarding, which has been prosecuted as torture for over a hundred years, illegal."
"Mukasey appears more interested in protecting administration officials from possible prosecution than in providing a straight answer on the law _ hardly the kind of independent legal adviser that America needs," Daskal said.
Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union urged its supporters to call their senators and demand a vote against Mukasey.
Torture is considered a war crime by the international community and waterboarding has been banned by the U.S. military, but CIA interrogators are believed to have used the technique on terror detainees as recently as a few years ago.
Mukasey has called waterboarding personally "repugnant," and in a letter to senators this week said he did not know enough about how it has been used to define it as torture. He also said he thought it would be irresponsible to discuss it since doing so could make interrogators and other government officials vulnerable to lawsuits.
Early Friday, Bush renewed his plea for Mukasey's confirmation.
"He's a good man. He's a fair man. He's an independent man, and he's plenty qualified to be attorney general," Bush said of Mukasey, just after landing in Columbia, S.C., on his way to a political fundraiser and to give a speech at Fort Jackson.
On Thursday, Bush had warned that the Justice Department would go without a leader in a time of war if Democrats thwarted Mukasey.
Bush also said that if the Judiciary Committee were to block Mukasey because of his noncommittal stance on the legality of waterboarding, it would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general.