(Updates with White House, Kennedy comments, Senate details)
By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, Nov 6 Reuters) - A divided U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday backed Michael Mukasey as U.S. attorney general despite concerns about the retired judge's refusal to denounce "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, as unlawful torture.
On an 11-8 vote, with two Democrats joining all nine Republicans, the committee sent President George W. Bush's nomination of Mukasey to the full Democratic-led Senate for virtually assured confirmation. The vote could come late this week.
Bush's selection of Mukasey to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as chief U.S. law enforcement officer initially drew broad and bipartisan support. But Mukasey ran into trouble at his confirmation hearing when he declined to say if he considered the so-called waterboarding interrogation technique illegal torture.
Critics have accused the United States of torturing suspects in the war on terrorism, with the CIA reportedly using the simulated drowning on at least three high-level detainees after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush says torture is prohibited but refuses to disclose U.S. interrogation techniques. Torture has long been barred by the U.S. criminal code and international treaties.
The committee vote was seen as the big hurdle for Mukasey, who found support in vowing to standup to the White House, review administration security policies to make sure that they adhere to the law and resign if Bush crossed the line.
In the full Senate, all 49 Republicans and at least half of the 51-member Democratic caucus are expected to vote for him, Democratic party aides said.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, opposed Mukasey and took a verbal shot at the White House, saying, "Nothing is more fundamental to our constitutional democracy than our basic notion that no one is above the law."
"This administration has undercut that precept time after time. They are now trying to do it again with an issue as fundamental as whether the United States of America would join the ranks of those governments around the world that approve of torture," Leahy said.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the committee, said he, too, had concerns about Mukasey's refusal to declare waterboarding torture, and thus illegal.
But Specter said Mukasey assured him that if Congress passed legislation to specifically declare waterboarding illegal, he would uphold it.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, mocked such an assurance in opposing Mukasey.
"Make no mistake about it. Waterboarding is already illegal under United States law. It's illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit outrages upon personal dignity, including cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment," Kennedy said.
In making the case for Mukasey, hailed by supporters as a fair and independent-minded former judge, Specter said the Justice Department is in need of leadership after the stormy tenure of Gonzales. Gonzales resigned under bipartisan pressure amid complaints he had injected politics into the administration of justice.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino welcomed the committee vote and said, "Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional attorney general at this critical time."
The two committee Democrats who voted for Mukasey were Charles Schumer of New York, who had suggested Bush nominate him as attorney general, and Dianne Feinstein of California. (Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by David Alexander and Jackie Frank)