Judge Michael Mukasey is on his way to confirmation as the country's next attorney general, after an 11-8 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined the committee's Republicans to support the nominee.
Schumer was one of Mukasey's strongest supporters early on, so he was in a difficult position when Mukasey refused to condemn an interrogation tactic known as waterboarding. Waterboarding is a form of controlled drowning the U.S. has historically prosecuted as torture.
Schumer said he eventually decided to support Mukasey after the judge assured him "that if Congress passed further legislation in this area, the president would have no legal authority to ignore it and Judge Mukasey would enforce it."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took no solace in that assurance.
"Enforcing the law is the job of the attorney general," Kennedy said. "It's a prerequisite — not a virtue that enhances a nominee's qualifications."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) wondered if Congress has to specifically state that forcing water into someone's lungs is cruel, inhuman and degrading.
"Are we going to have to outlaw the rack because there's a question whether the rack is torture in this country," Cardin asked.
The only military lawyer on the committee is Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who voted for Mukasey. He said Mukasey "is dealing with a legacy not of his making." But Graham also warned that if the United States endorses waterboarding, it puts American troops at risk of being treated the same way when they are captured.
Despite the Sturm und Drang over the nomination, everyone on the committee praised Mukasey as qualified and intelligent. The committee's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, judged him a good choice to pull the Justice Department out of the morass of scandals.
"We urgently need at this moment someone to run that department," Specter said, "because right now, it's being run down."
The White House urged the Senate to move quickly to confirm the nominee.
"We appreciate the vote of senators on the Judiciary Committee to forward the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the full Senate," said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. "Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional attorney general at this critical time."
The full Senate plans to vote on Mukasey's nomination by the end of next week. He is expected to be easily confirmed.