WASHINGTON A top Democratic lawmaker announced his opposition on Wednesday to U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey, citing unresolved concerns about the retired judge's view of torture.
"I can't support his nomination," Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Richard Durbin said after a showdown vote on Mukasey was set for next week by the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, declined to say how he would vote on Mukasey, but said: "No doubt the confirmation is at risk."
Despite such comments, Democratic aides said they still expect President George W. Bush's candidate to win confirmation by the full 100-member Senate, likely early next month.
But they said about half of the 51-member Senate Democratic caucus may oppose Mukasey because of his refusal to reject the widely denounced interrogation technique known as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, as unlawful torture.
"At this point it looks like he'll have the votes," said one aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraska Democrat and a key figure in earlier confirmation fights, said he expected the senator to vote to confirm Mukasey, who has been hailed as a fair and skilled former judge and prosecutor.
Critics have accused the United States of torturing suspects in the war on terrorism, with the CIA reportedly using waterboarding after the September 11 attacks.
Despite Bush's assurances that he prohibits torture, it's unclear how detainees are treated since he has refused to disclose interrogation techniques.
Mukasey wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats on Tuesday that waterboarding, as they described it to him, is "repugnant to me."
But Mukasey said he does not know if U.S. interrogation methods violate laws against torture. He vowed to find out and take corrective action if needed.
With four Democratic presidential contenders in the Senate announcing their opposition to Mukasey this week, Durbin said he doesn't plan to vote for him, either.
"Judge Mukasey's letter was very disappointing. I can't understand how a man of his intelligence, with his background, can't see clearly that waterboarding is torture and clearly illegal," said Durbin.
Durbin is a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is set to vote next Tuesday whether to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. A second committee Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, announced he will also oppose Mukasey.
Three Senate Republicans said even though Mukasey refused to rule on the legality of any possible waterboarding by the United States pending a review, they welcomed his assessment that such interrogation seems "repugnant and "over the line."
Sounding as if confirmation was assured, Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote him: "Once you are confirmed and fully briefed ... we urge you to publicly make clear that waterboarding can never be employed."
Democrats had initially praised Mukasey after Bush nominated him last month to succeed Alberto Gonzales, who resigned under pressure and was seen by many as a White House tool.
But Mukasey drew opposition during the second day of his confirmation hearing on October 18, primarily because of his refusal to say if he believed waterboarding was torture.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who had suggested Bush nominate Mukasey, suddenly sounded noncommittal. "I'm reading the letter and going over it," Schumer told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Kevin Drawbaugh and Tabassum Zakaria)