MONTPELIER, Vt. - The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Friday he won't support Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, further undercutting his chances for a quick confirmation, because Mukasey hasn't taken a firm enough stand against torture.
"No American should need a classified briefing to determine whether waterboarding is torture," said U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. He planned an afternoon news conference to make the announcement in Burlington.
Sliding support among Democrats on the panel, which will vote on the nomination Tuesday, makes it somewhat less likely the full Senate will send Mukasey to a Justice Department that has been leaderless for weeks.
Leahy became the firth of the panel's 10 Democrats so far to say they will not support him.
Once viewed as a sure thing, Mukasey's nomination was threatened during hearings last month in which he repeatedly refused to say whether he considers the simulated drowning interrogation technique known as waterboarding to be a form of torture.
Torture is considered a war crime by the international community and waterboarding has been banned by the U.S. military, but CIA interrogators are believed to have used the technique on terror detainees as recently as a few years ago.
Mukasey has called waterboarding personally "repugnant," but said he did not know enough about how it has been used to define it as torture. He also said he thought it would be irresponsible to discuss it since doing so could make interrogators and other government officials vulnerable to lawsuits.
"I am eager to restore strong leadership and independence to the Department of Justice," said Leahy. "I like Michael Mukasey. I wish that I could support his nomination. But I cannot. America needs to be certain and confident of the bedrock principle_ deeply embedded in our laws and our values — that no one, not even the president, is above the law."
Mukasey, a retired federal judge, was nominated in September to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned after months of questions about his honesty in congressional testimony and whether he allowed the Justice Department to become too entwined in White House politics.
Mukasey needs support from at least one Democrat on the 19-member Senate Judiciary Committee for his nomination to be sent to the full Senate for a vote. The four Democrats who sit on the panel and already have said they will oppose him are: Joe Biden of Delaware, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Earlier Friday, President Bush renewed his plea for Mukasey's confirmation.
"He's a good man. He's a fair man. He's an independent man, and he's plenty qualified to be attorney general," Bush said of Mukasey, just after landing in Columbia, S.C., on his way to a political fundraiser and to give a speech at Fort Jackson.
On Thursday, Bush had warned that the Justice Department would go without a leader in a time of war if Democrats thwarted Mukasey.
Bush also said that if the Judiciary Committee were to block Mukasey because of his noncommittal stance on the legality of waterboarding, it would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general.
Another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who was critical of Mukasey during the hearings, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, said he has not yet decided how he'll vote.
"He may be the best nominee we can get from this administration in this respect," Feingold said of Mukasey. "But I am concerned about his views on executive power, and I am weighing whether his answers to questions in that area adequately demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law."
There is a way for Mukasey to get a full Senate vote even if committee Democrats are united in opposing him. The Senate Judiciary Committee could agree to advance the nomination with "no recommendation," allowing Mukasey the chance to be confirmed by a majority of the 100-member Senate. Several vote-counters in each party said Mukasey probably would get 70 "yes" votes in such a scenario.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington contributed to this report.