WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday backed Michael Mukasey as attorney general despite concerns about the retired judge’s refusal to denounce “waterboarding” — 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 confirmation, which is virtually assured.
All 49 Senate Republicans are expected to support Mukasey, along with up to half of the 51-member Senate Democratic caucus, more than enough to clear possible procedural roadblocks, aides said.
Regardless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared his opposition and said he may wait a couple of weeks before bringing Mukasey up for a confirmation vote.
“It’s been no secret how I feel about waterboarding,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “We have executed people for waterboarding Americans.”
Critics have accused the United States of torturing suspects in the war on terrorism, with the CIA reportedly using the simulated drowning technique while interrogating at least three high-level detainees after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush says torture is prohibited but refuses to disclose U.S. interrogation methods. Torture has long been barred by the U.S. criminal code and international treaties.
Bush’s selection of Mukasey to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as chief U.S. law enforcement officer initially drew broad support. Lawmakers were encouraged by Mukasey’s vow to review administration security policies to make sure they adhere to the law and resign if Bush crossed the line.
But Mukasey ran into trouble at his confirmation hearing when he declined to say if he considered waterboarding torture.
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, senior Republican on the committee, said he, too, had concerns about Mukasey’s refusal to declare waterboarding torture.
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.
“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, backers praised him as a fair and independent-minded former judge who could restore confidence in the Justice Department after Gonzales’ stormy tenure. Gonzales resigned under pressure and amid complaints he had injected politics into the administration of justice.
“We urgently need, at this moment, someone to run that department, because right now, it’s being run down,” Specter said.
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 Richard Cowan and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by David Alexander and Jackie Frank