WASHINGTON — Michael Mukasey's nomination as the nation's next attorney general was sent to the full Senate on Tuesday as a vehicle for the broader, and more bitter, debate over the legality of the Bush administration's interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects.
The retired federal judge was expected to win confirmation easily by the end of next week, but not without significant floor discussion inspired by his refusal to say that waterboarding amounts to illegal torture.
Within hours of the Judiciary Committee's 11-8 endorsement of the nomination Tuesday, Mukasey's name was invoked in the same sentence as "torture" in a campaign appeal on behalf of Democrats.
"If he can't say no to torture, we say no to Mukasey," read a letter sent out by Friends for Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader who had announced earlier in the day he would vote against confirmation.
Mukasey's comments on torture rankled senators of both parties, but the nominee averted a rebellion by promising to enforce any law Congress passes outlawing the practice _ or quit the post if President Bush ignores his legal advice.
That was good enough for all nine Republicans and two Democrats on the 19-member Senate Judiciary Committee who voted to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.
"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."
Officials in both parties predicted Tuesday that Mukasey would win more than the 60 votes required to head off a filibuster. But before any more votes are cast on the matter, a full-blown floor debate was expected about waterboarding, a brutal interrogation method that creates the sensation of drowning and which is banned by domestic law and international treaties.
Those policies don't govern the CIA's use of the practice, however, and the Bush administration has sidestepped questions about whether it has allowed the agency's employees to use it against terror detainees.
At Senate confirmation hearings last month, Mukasey frustrated senators of both parties by repeatedly refusing to say whether he considers waterboarding a form of torture, as claimed by an unlikely coalition of military officials, doctors and humans rights groups.
Mukasey's assurances won enough support to survive a vote by the committee that looked uncertain only a few days earlier. Ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said the burden for outlawing the practice rests with Congress anyway.
But some on the panel called Mukasey's appeal disingenuous.
"Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of eight Democrats who voted against the nomination.
Added Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.:
"We are supposed to find comfort in the representations by a nominee to be the highest law enforcement officer in the country that he will in fact enforce the laws that we pass in the future? Can our standards really have sunk so low?"
But Republicans argued that Mukasey, a retired federal judge and one-time journalist, was qualified for the job and that he had answered the waterboarding question as fully as possible given that he has not been privy to classified interrogation techniques.
"He said that he opposes torture and would tell the president in no uncertain terms that any technique he concluded amounted to torture is illegal," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "I don't believe that he would bow to any kind of pressure even from the president, if he thought that there were a problem."
If lawmakers were unified on the unsavoriness of waterboarding, Democrats were divided on whether it disqualified Mukasey.
Like all four of the Senate's Democratic presidential hopefuls and eight Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Reid declared that the waterboarding issue disqualified Mukasey. He did not rule out a Democratic-driven filibuster, but officials said they knew of no specific plans to launch one.
"There may be people disappointed in Mukasey being reported out of the committee," Reid said. "That's why there will be a really heavy vote against him here on the floor."
At least two Democrats won't be among them. In a tightly choreographed move, Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California voted with all nine Judiciary Committee Republicans to send Mukasey's nomination to the floor.
Both said they believed waterboarding was illegal but appealed to practicality.
Schumer, who suggested Mukasey to the White House in the first place, said the nominee's statements of being personally against waterboarding and for purging politics from the Justice Department amounted to the best deal Democrats could get from the Bush administration as it nears an end.
"If six months from now ... the same policies continued, the victory in defeating Mukasey would seem hollow," Schumer told the panel. "No one questions that Judge Mukasey would do much to remove the stench of politics from the Justice Department. I believe we should give him that chance."
Feinstein, D-Calif., said her vote for Mukasey'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."
On the Net:
Senate Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.senate.gov