Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey told Senate Democrats Tuesday exactly what they wanted to hear during his confirmation hearings: That he'd be willing to say "no" to the White House and review the administration's eavesdropping and interrogation techniques.
Two of the administration's most ardent critics emerged from the meetings on the eve of Mukasey's confirmation hearings showering praise on the nominee and predicting easy and quick Senate approval.
"I expect him to be confirmed," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who will preside over the hearings. "I want him to succeed."
"I don't know of a single Democrat (on the panel) inclined not to support him," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chimed in later in the day.
Those are striking statements of support from majority Democrats in a chamber hostile to the administration on most everything else up for debate. Other nonfans of the White House, from Democratic Leader Harry Reid on down, have endorsed Bush's choice to take over a Justice Department left leaderless and demoralized after a series of difficulties under Alberto Gonzales.
Mukasey's nomination is a political peace offering in the troubled twilight of Bush's second term. Bush nominated him after Schumer suggested that Mukasey would be a suitable replacement for Gonzales -- quieting, for now, the months-long storm over whether the White House improperly influenced the firings of nine federal prosecutors and other matters.
Lawmakers of both parties warn that they will seek specific assurances from Mukasey on whether he would stand up for the rule of law -- and his own independent streak -- no matter the presidential pressure.
"We should not instinctively support someone blindly. We've been burned by doing that in the past," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Mukasey, 66, once worked as a reporter but gave it up to pursue a career in law. He was nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by President Reagan and eventually became the chief judge of the high-profile U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
With an office a few blocks from Ground Zero, Mukasey played a key role in the response to the Sept. 11 attacks. He and other New York judges saw some of the first material witnesses detained by federal authorities.
In the ensuing years, Mukasey showed an independent streak from administration policy that pleases Democrats and some Republicans who say Bush's practices violate the civil liberties of terrorism suspects.
He wrote, for example, that the law authorizing the material witness warrants "has its perils" in terrorism cases and urged Congress to "fix a strained and mismatched legal system" by establishing a national security court.
Mukasey also defied the government when he appointed a lawyer to Jose Padilla, arrested in 2002 for allegedly plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb."
Lawmakers of both parties say they don't have to agree with Mukasey on every issue. But pressured by their political bases, they'll press him for assurances of independence from the White House.
Leahy and other senators said the hearing will be dominated by questions about whether Mukasey believes some of the methods the United States uses to interrogate terrorism suspects are illegal.
"I understand that he'll say he's against torture," Leahy told reporters after meeting Tuesday with Mukasey.
"I want him to make it very clear that will be the legal policy of this country; not to say publicly, 'We're against torture,' but then out the back door issue a legal opinion saying we can torture," Leahy said, echoing concerns of Republicans and Democrats. "That has to stop."
Schumer said the judge also told him he would be willing to do an independent review of Justice's memos on the legality of wiretapping and detention policies.
Also hovering over the hearings: how Mukasey would set the Justice Department back on its feet after the array of Gonzales-era problems.
At least 15 senior Justice Department officials have resigned since Schumer launched his probe of the firings of federal prosecutors at the start of 2007. The departures include Gonzales, his second- and third-in-command and five assistant attorneys general.
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