WASHINGTON — Of neither Washington nor President Bush's Texas power circle, Michael Mukasey won his new job as attorney general in large part by vowing to be his own man. But Bush, his Capitol Hill allies and congressional Democrats have plenty of expectations for the retired federal judge, and political pressure will be there.
The president wants him to carry out the administration's terrorism-fighting agenda.
"Judge Mukasey will lead the Justice Department as it works to protect the American people whether from drug traffickers and other criminals on our streets or from terrorists who seek to attack our homeland," Bush after the Senate confirmed Mukasey 53-40 late Thursday.
Bush added another instruction:
"Now that Judge Mukasey has been confirmed, I look forward to working with the Senate to fill the other senior leadership positions at the Justice Department so that America has the strongest, most capable national security team during this time of war."
The statement was a bow to reality _ and to the demands of Democrats that Mukasey clean up the mess Alberto Gonzales left at the helm of the nation's federal law enforcement agency.
At least 15 senior Justice Department officials have resigned since Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. began his investigation of the firings of federal prosecutors at the start of 2007. The departures include Mukasey's predecessor Gonzales, his second- and third-in-command and five assistant attorneys general.
Majority Democrats in the Senate have a list of expectations, too _ chiefly, that Mukasey work closely with them.
Six Democrats, after all, helped seal his confirmation, even if all 40 votes against also came from the Democratic side of the aisle. Whether they voted for Mukasey or not, Democrats widely want him to examine the interrogation tactic designed to make the subject think he is drowning, and answer definitively: Is it illegal torture?
"I do believe he will be a truly nonpolitical, nonpartisan attorney general; that he will make his views very clear; and that, once he has the opportunity to do the evaluation he believes he needs on waterboarding, he will be willing to come before the Judiciary Committee and express his views comprehensively and definitively," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the six who voted with the majority for confirmation.
Added Schumer, Mukasey's chief Democratic patron:
"No one questions that Judge Mukasey would do much to turn around the Justice Department and much to remove the stench of politics from this vital institution."
Perhaps. But Schumer's fellow Democrats had many questions about whether Mukasey would ever be the right man for the job if he can't say what domestic and international law has said: That waterboarding is torture and therefore, illegal.
"This is like saying when somebody murders somebody with a baseball bat and you say, 'We had a law against murder but we never mentioned baseball bats,'" said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Murder is murder. Torture is torture."
Being better than Gonzales or an acting attorney general is not enough qualification for the job, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
"The next attorney general must restore confidence in the rule of law," he said. "We cannot afford to take the judgment of an attorney general who either does not know torture when he sees it or is willing to look the other way."
The confirmation vote capped 10 months of scandal and resignations at the Justice Department. Schumer drove the probe into the purge of nine federal prosecutors that helped push Gonzales out. Other possible misconduct was revealed in the process, such as Gonzales' subordinates making hiring decisions based on whether a candidate is Republican or Democrat _ a possible violation of civil service laws.
Waterboarding is banned by domestic law and international treaties. But U.S. law applies to Pentagon personnel and not the CIA. The administration won't say whether it has allowed the agency's employees to use it against terror detainees.
Mukasey has called waterboarding personally "repugnant," and in a letter to senators 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.
Mukasey, 66, was the White House's first choice to replace Gonzales.
Besides Schumer and Feinstein, Democrats voting to confirm Mukasey were: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Carper of Delaware, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Of the Senate's two independents, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voted for confirmation and Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted against.
Not voting were Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois. All four had said they opposed Mukasey's nomination.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona also was absent, as were GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Cornyn of Texas.
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