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By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, July 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved President Barack Obama's nomination of James Comey, an independent-minded Republican and former deputy U.S. attorney general, as director of the FBI.
The nomination now goes to the full Senate, which is expected to confirm Comey as early as next week to replace Robert Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
All eight committee Republicans joined the panel's 10 Democrats in sending the nomination to the full Senate.
The committee's vote came two days after an agreement was reached to settle Democratic complaints that Republicans had unfairly delayed a number of other nominees.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a committee member, brushed off the earlier showdown and praised Comey, saying, "When we get a good nominee, we move them."
Comey, 52, served as deputy U.S. attorney general for President George W. Bush, a Republican, from 2003 to 2005. He gained fame and a reputation for being willing to buck authority after refusing in 2004 to certify aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.
At the time, Comey was acting attorney general while then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis.
Comey's refusal prompted top White House officials to go to the hospital and try to get Ashcroft to sign the certification. Comey, who was in the room, said Ashcroft refused.
Comey's actions won him the support of Democrats who opposed Bush's domestic surveillance program. Comey left the Justice Department in 2005 and served until 2010 as general counsel to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
At his Senate confirmation hearing this month, Comey testified that he believed that the use of waterboarding, or near drowning, as an interrogation technique was torture and thus illegal.
Comey said he had made his views known when he was in the Bush administration but lost battles to stop the CIA from using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation on enemy combatants.
"Mr. Comey has had an outstanding career in law enforcement, and if confirmed, I expect he will lead the Bureau with an independent voice," Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, said after the vote.
"Few positions have as much impact on our liberty and national security as the director of the FBI," Leahy said.
The FBI has nearly 36,000 employees, including 13,785 special agents who investigate cases ranging from domestic and international terrorism to civil rights violations, drug cases, white collar crime and public corruption.