WASHINGTON — Judge Michael Mukasey's nomination for attorney general ran into trouble Thursday when two top Senate Democrats said their votes hinge on whether he will say on the record that an interrogation technique that simulates drowning is torture.
"It's fair to say my vote would depend on him answering that question," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters late Thursday.
"This to me is the seminal issue," said Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is on Leahy's panel. Asked if his vote depends on whether Mukasey equates waterboarding with torture, Durbin answered: "It does."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said his support could be in doubt over the same issue.
"I think if he doesn't change his direction in that regard, he could have at least one concern, and that's me," Reid told reporters. Leahy has refused to set a date for a vote on Mukasey's nomination until he clarifies his answer to the torture question.
Separately, a Democrat familiar with the panel's deliberations said the nomination might not win a favorable recommendation unless Mukasey essentially says waterboarding is torture. The nomination needs 10 committee votes to be reported to the Senate floor with that recommendation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: "As he always does, Judge Mukasey will answer all questions from the judiciary committee in a clear and forthright manner."
Mukasey's confirmation once seemed a virtual certainty. The mood shifted last week when he refused to say explicitly whether waterboarding amounts to torture and is unconstitutional.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said he will vote against Mukasey's confirmation, in part over his answer on torture. Other lawmakers, like Leahy, Durbin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), said they would vote against Mukasey if he does not equate waterboarding with torture.