WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday night to confirm the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general, despite often emotional opposition from Democrats who said his refusal to disavow a controversial interrogation method made him an unsuitable leader for the U.S. Justice Department.
The vote was 53 to 40, with six Democrats -- including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California -- and one independent supporting the nominee.
The 66-year-old retired federal judge from New York is expected to be sworn in today as the third attorney general of the Bush presidency. Among the challenges he will face in the next 14 months is the perception that the department was heavily influenced by political considerations under his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.
The late-night vote came after a procession of Democrats took to the Senate floor to denounce Mukasey -- and the Bush administration -- as failing to take a firm stand against the use of torture in questioning terrorism suspects.
Mukasey in particular has come under fire for refusing to say whether he believed that waterboarding -- an interrogation technique simulating drowning that dates to the Spanish Inquisition -- was unlawful.
American interrogators are believed to have resorted to the technique in questioning some high-value terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but the administration has refused to say whether it was ever employed.
Democrats chided the nominee Thursday night for refusing to acknowledge what they said was an obvious and long-standing truth, and they said his reticence raised questions about whether he would act as an independent check on President Bush.
"We need an attorney general to tell this king that he is wrong and that the rule of law will apply," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin said Mukasey "may run a good department" if confirmed but expressed doubt that Mukasey would stand up to Bush.
"There is no question that this time will be remembered as a dark chapter in America's otherwise steady march toward justice," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "But for now, all we can do is . . . turn the page to a brighter day. What we can do today is reject this nomination."
The margin of confirmation -- narrower than that for either Gonzales or John Ashcroft, Bush's first attorney general -- was hardly the vote of confidence that the White House or even Senate Democrats expected when Bush tapped Mukasey in mid-September to succeed Gonzales. Gonzales and Ashcroft were confirmed with "yes" votes of 60 and 58, respectively.
With 18 years on the federal bench and experience as a federal prosecutor and private lawyer, Mukasey impressed lawmakers with his legal acumen and judgment during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. From the start, he was considered a compromise choice by the White House, calculated to avoid a prolonged confirmation battle, and he was recommended by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the Senate's most liberal thinkers.
Ultimately, Schumer and Feinstein gave Mukasey the votes needed to move his nomination from the committee to the Senate floor.
Feinstein said Thursday night that Mukasey was being treated unfairly and that her fellow Democrats should focus more on shoring up the embattled Justice Department than "pounding our chests" against torture. She noted that the White House indicated it would not nominate another candidate if the Senate rejected Mukasey.
"Some people, I think, want to keep the issue [of torture] alive rather than solve the problem. I am not one of those people," Feinstein said. "This is the only chance that is going to be offered to put new leadership in the Department of Justice. If you believe it is in disarray, there is only one action to take."