WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday nominated Michael Mukasey, a retired federal judge and law-and-order conservative, to replace beleaguered Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general.
The 66-year-old Mukasey drew quick praise from a number of Democrats as well as Republicans, suggesting he may win relatively easy confirmation in a Democratic-led Senate, which has been sharply divided over administration terrorism policies that some charge violate civil liberties.
As a U.S. District Court judge in New York for 18 years, Mukasey presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center for which he received praise from a federal appeals court.
"Judge Mukasey is clear-eyed about the threat our nation faces," Bush said in introducing him at the White House. "I urge the Senate to confirm Judge Mukasey promptly."
Mukasey, standing beside Bush, said the Justice Department must help protect the nation's security as well as "the safety of our children, the commerce that assures our prosperity, and the rights and liberties that define us as a nation."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who has been pushing a reluctant White House for information about its domestic spying program and Gonzales' firing of federal prosecutors, gave no indication when he will order confirmation hearings.
But Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said: "Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings."
Mukasey, an authority on national security issues, emerged as Bush's choice after Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid vowed last week to would block a then leading nominee, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, as too partisan.
"I'm glad President Bush listened to Congress," Reid said. "Judge Mukasey has strong professional credentials and a reputation for independence."
Under bipartisan pressure, Gonzales, a longtime Bush friend who earlier served as White House counsel, announced his resignation last month, effective on Monday.
Gonzales was criticized at home and abroad for the administration's tough anti-terrorism policies. He also drew fire from Democrats as well as some Republicans for his ouster last year of nine federal prosecutors.
While critics questioned Gonzales' truthfulness and ability to lead the Justice Department, Bush saluted him as he named Mukasey as his successor, calling Gonzales an "honorable and decent man."
NOT AN INSIDER
Mukasey, unlike Gonzales, is not a Bush administration insider.
A number of conservative groups were angry at Bush for giving up on Olson, but most appear pleased with the selection of Mukasey, a Senate Republican aide said.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who led the drive to force Gonzales out, said Mukasey had the potential to become a consensus nominee.
"While he is certainly conservative, Judge Mukasey seems to be the kind of nominee who would put rule of law first and show independence from the White House," said Schumer, who is from New York, where Mukasey spent his career.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Bush made a "very conscious and deliberate effort to nominate someone not controversial."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We're not looking for a fight, and I would be surprised if the Senate is either."
Mukasey was appointed to the federal bench two decades ago by Republican President Ronald Reagan. He earlier served as an assistant U.S. attorney. He retired from the bench last year.
While a federal judge, Mukasey presided over a number of celebrated cases, such as the trials of 10 people accused of plotting terrorist attacks on New York, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
In a more recent case, Mukasey found that the government had a right to hold Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant without charging him with a crime. But he also ordered the administration to allow Padilla to meet with a lawyer.