Conservatives at Odds Over Possible Attorney General Replacement

Conservatives on Saturday lined up for and against potential attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey, the man they believe has ascended to the top of President Bush's list of replacements for Alberto Gonzales.

Earlier in the week, Democrats in the Senate threatened to block confirmation of another prospect — Theodore Olson, a longtime GOP ally and former solicitor general who represented Bush before the Supreme Court in the contested 2000 presidential election.

The behind-the-scenes battle over who will succeed Gonzales heated up over the weekend as the president, who was at Camp David, moved closer to announcing his choice.

So far, the White House has stayed quiet about who will replace Gonzales. An announcement is expected this week, and some legal conservatives and Republicans told The Associated Press that the White House appeared to be signaling that Mukasey was Bush's pick.

That prompted questions and praise for the former U.S. district judge from New York, who is an adviser to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

Brian Burch, president of the Catholic-based advocacy group Fidelis, said he started getting calls early Saturday from members of his group and other conservative groups who were worried that Bush was getting ready to nominate Mukasey.

"His federal judicial record has been at times hostile to the issues that we care and have concern about, like abortion," Burch said.

Others hailed Mukasey's record.

"He is really tough as nails. He was a really first-rate, brilliant judge, and he's got impeccable conservative law-and-order values," said Jay Lefkowitz, a former domestic policy adviser at the Bush White House who handled Justice Department issues. "I think he would be very well-positioned on national security issues, on prosecuting the war on terror. He would be coming from outside the White House and ... could restore confidence in the department."

Mukasey also has boosters among some of Bush's toughest Democratic critics.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., previously recommended Mukasey for a Supreme Court vacancy.

In June 2005, the liberal Alliance for Justice put Mukasey's name on a list of four judges who, if chosen for the Supreme Court, would show the president's "commitment" to picking someone who could be supported by both Democratic and Republican senators.

Nan Aron of the alliance said if Bush nominated Mukasey, the Senate would view it as a "conciliatory" act.

"The White House is fighting on a number of different fronts and maybe just want one less confrontation with the Democratic Senate," Aron said. "I've been told that Mukasey has been vetted and that he's the nominee if the White House decides to send up a consensus candidate."

Burch said Mukasey "is backed and supported by far left wing of the Democratic party. Any time you have a person with those persons backing him it gives us pause."

Attempts to reach Mukasey on Saturday were unsuccessful.

Besides Mukasey and Olson, others being eyed for the post include former deputy attorney general George Terwilliger; 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Wilkins; and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, who is general counsel at PepsiCo.

Mukasey has handled terrorist cases in the U.S. legal system for more than 10 years. He was nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by President Reagan and eventually became chief judge of the high-profile federal courthouse in Manhattan.

Mukasey played a key role in one of the most hard-fought post-Sept. 11 terror cases: that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a supposed mission to detonate a "dirty bomb."

The judge appointed a lawyer to Padilla, but before a hearing on whether there was sufficient cause to detain Padilla, Bush declared him an enemy combatant. That began a years-long legal ordeal that ended with Padilla back in a different federal court, where he was convicted last month of murder conspiracy.

Despite his experience with the terrorism docket, opponents of Mukasey — especially those who are against abortion — are upset about a 1994 case he handled.

Burch cited the case of Dong v. Slattery, Mukasey denied political asylum in the United States to a Chinese man who had fled the communist nation. The man claimed political persecution by Chinese authorities after he and his family violated China's one-child, forced-abortion policies.

The man's wife was forced to undergo an abortion, and he claimed he would be severely punished for helping his wife try to defy the communist policies if he was deported to China. Ruling against the man, Mukasey reasoned that, under the law, he should uphold the Board of Immigration's denial of asylum.

Gonzales quit after 2-1/2 years at the Justice Department amid investigations into whether he broke the law and lied to Congress. He has denied any wrongdoing. Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general until the Senate confirms Gonzales' successor.

On Friday, his last day at the department, Gonzales was feted at a standing-room-only Justice Department farewell ceremony. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former White House chief of staff Andy Card and Olson were in the audience.

Olson was in the Democrats' sights last week.

"Ted Olson will not be confirmed," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in foreshadowing a brutal confirmation hearing. "I intend to do everything I can to prevent him from being confirmed as the next attorney general."