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Bush attorney general nominee gets key Democratic support

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Feinstein, Schumer say they'll vote for attorney general nominee
  • Michael Mukasey's nomination now expected to pass Judiciary Committee
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy says he will not vote to confirm Michael Mukasey
  • Committee scheduled to vote on nomination on Tuesday
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general was all but assured Friday when two key Democratic senators said they will vote in favor of the nominee despite questions about his views on "waterboarding" and the president's power to order electronic surveillance.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York announced they would support the retired federal judge from New York just hours after the chairman of the Judiciary Committee announced his opposition to the nominee.

Feinstein and Schumer are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to vote on the Mukasey nomination Tuesday.

If all the Republican members of the committee also vote for Mukasey, which is expected, his nomination will go before the full Senate. A leading Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday Mukasey is likely to be confirmed if his nomination passes the Judiciary Committee.

Schumer had praised the nomination of Mukasey as a consensus candidate when the president announced Mukasey as his choice to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales gave up the post in September.

"This is an extremely difficult decision," Schumer said.

"When an administration so political, so out of touch with the realities of governing and so contemptuous of the rule of law is in charge, we are never left with an ideal choice. Judge Mukasey is not my ideal choice. However, Judge Mukasey, whose integrity and independence is respected even by those who oppose him, is far better than anyone could expect from this administration."

A number of Democratic senators, however, have said they will oppose Mukasey because of questions about his views on the interrogation technique called "waterboarding" and the president's power to order electronic surveillance.

Waterboarding involves restraining a suspect and using water to produce the sensation of drowning.

Mukasey told senators this week that he finds waterboarding "repugnant," but he could not answer whether the technique amounts to torture.

While saying "serious questions have been raised about Judge Mukasey's views on torture and on separation of powers," Feinstein said she would support the nominee because the Justice Department needed fresh leadership.

"First and foremost, Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales. Rather, he has forged an independent life path as a practitioner of the law and a federal judge in the Southern District of New York.

"I believe that Judge Mukasey is the best we will get and voting him down would only perpetuate acting and recess appointments, allowing the administration to avoid the transparency that confirmation hearings provide and diminish effective oversight by Congress."

Just hours before Feinstein and Schumer announced their decisions, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, announced he would vote against the Mukasey nomination. Video Watch Sen. Leahy explain why he can't support the Mukasey nomination »

"No American should need a classified briefing to determine whether waterboarding is torture," Leahy said. "Waterboarding was used at least as long ago as the Spanish Inquisition. We prosecuted Japanese war criminals for waterboarding after World War II.

"I am eager to restore strong leadership and independence to the Department of Justice. I like Michael Mukasey. I wish that I could support his nomination. But I cannot. America needs to be certain and confident of the bedrock principle -- deeply embedded in our laws and our values -- that no one, not even the president, is above the law."

President Bush demanded the Senate confirm Mukasey during a speech Thursday at the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank.

"In a time of war, it's vital for the president to have a full national security team in place," the president said.

The president has equated asking Mukasey about his opinion of waterboarding with asking him about the CIA-run interrogation program, whose details are classified.

Bush said the program does not violate U.S. bans on torture, but added that Mukasey "does not want an uninformed opinion to be taken by our professional interrogators in the field as placing them in legal jeopardy."

But Leahy said "Judge Mukasey was not asked to evaluate any secret 'facts and circumstances.' "

"He was asked whether waterboarding is illegal. Our law makes torture illegal, and waterboarding is torture, and it is illegal. It is frankly not dependent on any, quote, 'relevant facts and circumstances of the technique's past or proposed use,' " he said, quoting from Mukasey's response to senators on the question.

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Sources with knowledge of the CIA-run interrogation program have said agents are no longer using waterboarding. But those sources have said waterboarding was used in the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, now facing trial before a military tribunal for planning al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

The practice was used by the Spanish Inquisition, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and the World War II Japanese military, according to Human Rights Watch. It is specifically banned in U.S. law governing the treatment of prisoners by the U.S. military. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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