WASHINGTON – A divided Senate narrowly confirmed former federal Judge Michael Mukasey on Thursday night as the 81st attorney general, giving the nominee the lowest level of congressional support of any Justice Department leader in the last half-century.
The 53-40 vote came after more than four hours of impassioned floor debate and reflected an effort by Democrats to register their displeasure with Bush administration policies on torture and the boundaries of presidential power.
The final tally gave Mukasey the lowest number of yes votes for any attorney general since 1952, just weeks after lawmakers of both parties had predicted his easy confirmation. They believe Mukasey is the best possible replacement for Alberto Gonzales, who resigned under a cloud of scandal in September.
He avoided defeat only because a half dozen Democrats voted in favor of the appointment along with Republicans and Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut.
Mukasey, 66, had outraged many lawmakers and human-rights groups by repeatedly refusing to classify waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique, as torture. His few Democratic supporters said Thursday night that, while they are troubled by his equivocal views on waterboarding, they believe Mukasey represents the best possibility for reform at the troubled Justice Department.
“This is the only chance we have,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The other Democrats in favor of the confirmation were Sens. Charles Schumer, of New York, Evan Bayh, of Indiana, Thomas Carper, of Delaware, Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana and Ben Nelson, of Nebraska. The fractured tally signals that Mukasey will face a deeply skeptical Democratic Congress as he takes over at Justice, which has been demoralized and emptied of senior leadership in the wake of scandals.
The challenges facing Mukasey over the next 14 months are severe, from rebuilding confidence at Justice to crafting new strategies to combat a growing violent crime problem. Mukasey has also pledged to review the Justice Department’s controversial legal opinions on torture and detention policies, and will have to cope with the outcome of a series of internal investigations into alleged misdeeds by Gonzales and his aides.
Although unburdened by political ties to President Bush, and cast by the administration as a clear-eyed reformer, Mukasey’s nomination was nearly derailed after he said that he found waterboarding repugnant but did not have enough details to determine its legality. The issue quickly caught fire with grass-roots Democrats, and was stoked further when all four Democratic senators running for president announced their opposition to Mukasey’s confirmation.