US President George W. Bush's nominee for the next US attorney general is headed to the full Senate as a vehicle for the broader, and more bitter, debate over the legality of the Bush administration's interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects.
Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey was expected to win confirmation easily by the end of next week but not without significant floor discussion inspired by his refusal to say that so-called waterboarding amounts to illegal torture.
Tenuous as it was, the Senate Judiciary Committee's 11-8 endorsement of the nomination on Tuesday was a rare victory for Bush at a time when his popularity remains extremely low despite occasional good news from the unpopular Iraq war.
Still, within hours of the committee action, Mukasey's name was invoked in the same sentence as "torture" in a campaign appeal on behalf of Democrats.
"If he can't say no to torture, we say no to Mukasey," read a letter sent out by Friends for Harry Reid, leader of the Senate's Democratic majority who had announced earlier Tuesday that he would vote against confirmation.
Mukasey's comments on torture rankled senators of both parties, but the nominee averted a rebellion by promising to enforce any law Congress might pass to outlaw the practice and to quit the Cabinet if Bush should ignore his legal advice.
That was good enough for all nine Republicans and two Democrats on the 19-member Judiciary Committee who voted to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.
Under the US Constitution, the Senate has the last word on senior federal officials, including members of the president's Cabinet.
"We appreciate the vote of senators on the Judiciary Committee to forward the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the full Senate," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional attorney general at this critical time."
The post of attorney general, the top US law enforcer, has been vacant since the resignation in September of longtime Bush ally Alberto Gonzales.
He withstood weeks of accusations of mismanagement and politicization of the Justice Department before finally succumbing to the onslaught.
Officials in both parties predicted on Tuesday that Mukasey would win more than the 60 votes required to stop a filibuster, a Senate delaying tactic that can kill a bill.
Before any more votes are cast on the matter, a full-blown floor debate was expected about waterboarding, a brutal interrogation method that creates the sensation of drowning, which is banned by domestic law and international treaties.
Those policies do not govern the CIA's use of the practice, and the Bush administration has sidestepped questions about whether it has allowed the agency's employees to use it against terror detainees.
At Senate confirmation hearings last month, Mukasey frustrated senators of both parties by repeatedly refusing to say whether he considers waterboarding a form of torture, as claimed by an unlikely coalition of military officials, doctors and human rights groups.
Mukasey's assurances won enough support to survive a vote by the committee that looked uncertain only a few days earlier. Ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said the burden for outlawing the practice rests with Congress anyway.