(CNN) -- After weeks of controversy over Michael Mukasey's views on waterboarding, the Senate late Thursday approved the former judge's nomination for attorney general by a 53-40 vote.
Waterboarding threatened to derail the approval of President Bush's nominee to lead the Justice Department.
President Bush nominated Mukasey to replace longtime ally Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in September.
The nomination had been considered at risk after a number of Democratic senators opposed Mukasey because of questions that arose from his views on the terror interrogation technique known as waterboarding and the president's power to order electronic surveillance.
Mukasey, a former federal judge in New York, told senators he considers waterboarding "repugnant," but he could not categorically say whether the technique amounts to torture, which U.S. and international law bans.
Waterboarding is a technique that involves restraining a suspect and pouring water on him to produce the sensation of drowning.
Mukasey's confirmation was all but assured last week when two key Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chuck Schumer of New York -- said they would vote in favor of Mukasey despite the controversy.
"The Department of Justice, once the crown jewel among government institutions, is adrift and rudderless," Schumer said Tuesday -- the same day the committee voted 11-8 to send Mukasey's nomination to the Senate floor.
Born: 1941 in Bronx, New York
Federal judicial service: Judge, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York; nominated by President Reagan on July 27, 1987; confirmed by the Senate on November 6, 1987, and received commission on November 9, 1987; was chief judge, 2000-2006; assumed senior status in August 2006; service terminated in September 2006 due to retirement.
Education: Columbia University, A.B., 1963; Yale Law School, LL.B., 1967
Professional career: Private practice, New York, 1967-1972; assistant U.S. attorney, Southern District of New York, 1972-1976; chief, Official Corruption Unit, 1975-1976; private practice, New York, 1976-1987
Source: Federal Judicial Center
"It desperately needs a strong and independent leader at the helm to set it back on course and I believe Judge Mukasey is that person."
Schumer said that in a meeting Friday the nominee said that Congress would be within its rights to pass a law that bans waterboarding across all government agencies and that the president "would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore" it.
Schumer said he believed Mukasey would be more likely to find waterboarding illegal than an interim attorney general.
"Indeed, his written answers to our notices have demonstrated more openness to ending the practices we abhor than either of this president's previous attorney general nominees have."
But Mukasey's pledge to enforce such a law rang hollow with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's chairman.
"Some have sought to find comfort in Judge Mukasey's personal assurance that he would enforce a future, new law against waterboarding if this Congress were to pass one," Leahy said Tuesday.
"Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president."
However, the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he believed Mukasey would enforce a law banning waterboarding.
"He could have said a lot of things which would have given me more assurances," Specter said earlier. "But he is intelligent; he's really learned in the law. He's strong, ethical, honest beyond any question. He's not an intimate of the president."
A majority of Americans consider waterboarding a form of torture, but some of those say it's OK for the U.S. government to use the technique, according to a poll released Tuesday.
Asked whether they think waterboarding is a form of torture, more than two-thirds of respondents, or 69 percent, said yes; 29 percent said no. Asked whether they think the U.S. government should be allowed to use the procedure to try to get information from suspected terrorists, 58 percent said no; 40 percent said yes.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. telephone poll of 1,024 American adults was carried out over the weekend and had a sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. E-mail to a friend
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