SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
It looks like Michael Mukasey will be the next attorney general. He may have two things to thank for that. He is a lawyer's lawyer, and he's not Alberto Gonzales. That's what two key Senate Democrats said last night when they announced that they would give him crucial support.
NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna joins us from the Capitol.
David, thanks very much for being with us.
DAVID WELNA: Sure, Scott.
SIMON: And remind us, please, why Mr. Mukasey's nomination has recently been considered to be in trouble, and these two Democrats who were so critical to getting him out of trouble.
WELNA: Well, I think if one word sort of sums up why this nomination seemed headed for the ditch, that word would be waterboarding. That's the extreme interrogation technique that simulates drowning that the CIA is reported to have used on detainees. And Mukasey was asked by Democrats on the judiciary committee during his confirmation hearing if he considered waterboarding to be torture and therefore unconstitutional.
And while he called the practice repugnant, he refused to say whether it is illegal. And that made some of the 10 Democrats on the judiciary panel wondered just how independent Mukasey would be from the president. And if all of them came out against Mukasey that would have outnumbered the nine Republicans who were expected to back him.
And that's why it was so crucial for the survival of this nomination that New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein put out statements last night saying they intend to vote for Mukasey. And that virtually assures he'll get a positive recommendation from the judiciary committee next week to be confirmed as attorney general.
SIMON: Now, how did they explain their vote because it seems to me earlier in the week you had a lot of prominent Democrats stepping up to say they would oppose the nomination?
WELNA: Well, both of them argued that Mukasey has had a long distinguished career as a federal judge and that he's the best nominee that they can expect to get.
Schumer, in fact, is the senator who actually recommended Mukasey to the White House for this job. He said it was an extremely difficult decision to back Mukasey, but he said it made it because Mukasey is, in his words, a lawyer's lawyer who won't leap to quick judgments including judgments on what's torture. And Schumer said Democrats could never expect, under this administration, to get a nominee for attorney general who would agree with them on torture and wiretapping.
And Feinstein's the one who said Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general who stepped down in the storm of controversy over the Justice Department having become too politicized. Feinstein said she hope that Congress would pass legislation that bans waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques for all parts of the government, not just for the military, as things stand now.
SIMON: How soon do you think we might see the confirmation of Mr. Mukasey?
WELNA: I think quite soon. After Tuesday's committee vote, his nomination would be forwarded to the full Senate where he's expected to fare even better. So it could be that by the end of next week, Michael Mukasey will be President Bush's third Senate confirmed attorney general.
SIMON: Would you have to count this a big political victory by a president who's not doing well in terms of public approval rating in the polls and is considered to have lost a lot of his influence on Capitol Hill?
WELNA: I think it is a victory because President Bush decided this time to change his style and to reach out to Senate Democrats and find a consensus nominee for this post, which, he knew, would be extremely difficult to fill after everything that happened with Alberto Gonzales.
He made it pretty clear this week that if Senate Democrats rejected this consensus candidate, Mukasey, they should not expect President Bush to reach out and try to find another consensus candidate. I think he may well have ended up filling the attorney general's post with a recess appointment rather than send another nominee here.
SIMON: And Senator Schumer forewarns that that was too terrible to contemplate.
WELNA: Yes. And he said far better to go with somebody they know the record on and who he trusts will put some kind of order back into the Justice Department rather than rely on the president to name somebody while the Senate is out of town.
SIMON: NPR congressional correspondent David Welna.
WELNA: You're welcome, Scott.