WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Michael B. Mukasey appeared yesterday to be all but assured of becoming the nation's 81st attorney general when two Senate Democrats broke ranks and said they would support the retired federal judge to head the Justice Department.
While acknowledging serious concerns about his views on interrogation techniques, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York said they would vote to confirm Mukasey when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up his nomination to succeed Alberto R. Gonzales on Tuesday.
In separate statements yesterday afternoon, both lawmakers praised the 66-year-old New Yorker for his legal heft and independence. They said they believed he would be a powerful antidote for the Justice Department, still reeling from the two-year, politically charged tenure of Gonzales.
"First and foremost, Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales," Feinstein said. "Rather, he has forged an independent life path as a practitioner of the law and a federal judge."
Feinstein pointed to Mukasey's extensive experience on national security issues and said his answers to lawmakers who have been probing his qualifications were "crisp and succinct, and demonstrated a strong, informed and independent mind."
Schumer said he believed Mukasey would "clean the stench of politicization out of the Justice Department."
"Judge Mukasey is not my ideal choice," Schumer said. But, he said, he was "far better than anyone could expect from this administration."
The twin announcements, coming within minutes of each other, were the latest twist in a six-week-old nomination struggle in which Mukasey's confirmation at first seemed to be a foregone conclusion, then looked imperiled and now appears to be on track.
His prospects had dimmed because of mounting concern after his confirmation hearing last month, when Mukasey refused to declare that a coercive interrogation technique known as water-boarding was illegal torture. His carefully worded explanation reminded some members of his predecessor Gonzales and his frequent evasions.
Schumer held a closed-door meeting with Mukasey yesterday in which the nominee appeared to offer a crucial assurance: that if Congress chose to enact a law banning the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, Bush would have to follow it.
"He flatly told me that the president would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law," Schumer said. "He also pledged to enforce such a law and repeated his willingness to leave office rather than participate in a violation of law."
That pledge seemed likely to jolt support for anti-torture legislation that is pending in the Senate. Feinstein said she would favor including language to that effect in other pending legislation overhauling the foreign intelligence surveillance law.
Bush had moved to salvage Mukasey's nomination Thursday, accusing Democrats of setting an unfair standard for his nominee that was threatening to leave the Justice Department without permanent leadership "at a time of war."
The White House had no direct comment yesterday on the decisions of the two Democrats. Spokesman Tony Fratto said: "Judge Mukasey is exceptionally qualified and would be an outstanding attorney general. He deserves a vote from the full Senate, where we are confident he would be confirmed."
Earlier yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick J. Leahy, announced that he would oppose Mukasey, saying the former judge's refusal to brand waterboarding - a kind of simulated drowning that dates to the 16th century - as torture should not be countenanced.
"If an American was captured and waterboarded, would we consider it torture and want to raise bloody hell about it? Of course we would," the Vermont Democrat said. Leahy was the panel's fifth Democrat to signal opposition to Mukasey.
With Republicans lined up behind Bush's pick, it will require a single "yes" vote from the Democratic-majority committee Tuesday to ensure Mukasey's name is sent to the Senate floor. Congressional observers believe he would easily win a vote in the full Senate. Assuming the committee clears him, such a vote would likely occur before Thanksgiving.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.