WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to send Michael Mukasey's nomination for attorney general to the full Senate, voting 11-8 to recommend approving him.
Mukasey's confirmation was initially thought to be a shoo-in, but it was imperiled when Democrats began questioning him about his position on torture and the interrogation method known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning and many consider a form of torture.
Mukasey, with backing from President Bush, said he could not answer specific questions about waterboarding, in part, because he isn't allowed access to classified information about U.S. interrogation programs because he hasn't been confirmed yet.
But the key vote Tuesday was essentially sealed last week when committee Democrats Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California said they would support his nomination after Mukasey said he would enforce any law Congress would enact prohibiting waterboarding.
White House press secretary Dana Perino issued a statement applauding the committee's vote.
"We appreciate the vote of senators on the Judiciary Committee to forward the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the full Senate. Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional Attorney General at this critical time," Perino said.
"The Justice Department is crucial to both our law enforcement and national security missions, and so we look forward to a vote in the full Senate to confirm Judge Mukasey, allowing us to move to filling the senior leadership positions at the Justice Department."
Sen. Arlen Specter, the top committee Republican, said Mukasey's words tipped the balance favorably to gain his vote.
Specter said he spoke with Mukasey, who said "it was his legal opinion that the Congress has the constitutional authority to prohibit waterboarding, equating it with torture and making it illegal." Specter said that Mukasey also told him he believed the president could not disregard a congressional act regarding waterboarding.
Specter then pointed to what he said was Mukasey's most "important answer" as evidence to support him: "If the president of the United States disregarded his opinion -- his judgment on an important constitutional issue, that he would resign, rather than stay on."
The vow did not sway committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who called Mukasey's promise disingenuous.
"Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president," Leahy said Tuesday.
After casting their votes Tuesday, committee Republicans lashed out at Democrats who opposed Mukasey's nomination, accusing them of politicizing the nomination.
"Judge Mukasey's qualifications of character has never been in doubt," Sen. Orrin Hatch said, speaking in the committee chamber shortly after the vote. "I don't believe torture is the real issue."
"The real issue is politicizing the Justice Department. It politicizes the Justice Department to demand that Judge Mukasey take a politically correct position on waterboarding before he can go through a legally correct process to analyze the issue," Hatch said.
Feinstein said she believed Mukasey would set the Justice Department on the correct path, charting a new course from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose tenure she said was marred by political prosecutions and high turnover of top officials.
"Mukasey has followed an independent path. He has stood on his own .... Mukasey in my view is going to be a very different attorney general," Feinstein said.
Schumer, who suggested to the White House that it nominate Mukasey in the first place, wrote in an op-ed in Tuesday's New York Times that Mukasey was the best option Democrats would get from the Bush administration.
"If we block Judge Mukasey's nomination and then learn in six months that waterboarding has continued unabated, that victory will seem much less valuable," Schumer said.
Mukasey, 66, is a partner in the law firm Patterson, Belknap Webb & Tyler in New York, and is a former judge on the U.S. District Court for he Southern District of New York, including six years as chief judge, between 1988 and 2006. He also was an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division from 1972 to 1976.
Mukasey's supporters say he has a strong record on fighting terrorism -- a major Justice Department initiative -- pointing specifically to his handling of the trial for defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which included the "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman.
Those voting in favor of Mukasey were: Schumer; Feinstein; Hatch; Specter; and Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa; Jon Kyl of Arizona; Jeff Sessions of Alabama; Lindsay Graham of South Carolina; John Cornyn of Texas; Sam Brownback of Kansas; and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
All voting against Mukasey were Democrats. They were: Leahy, and; Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts; Joe Biden of Delaware; Herb Kohl of Wisconsin; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; Dick Durbin of Illinois; Ben Cardin of Maryland; and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.