The Senate confirmed Mukasey after weeks of judiciary panel debate over his views on controversial interrogation tactics such as waterboarding.
Mukasey will succeed Gonzales, who resigned in September under pressure from Senate Democrats for his involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys earlier this year. Mukasey’s confirmation vote capped nearly a year of scandal and a string of resignations at the Justice Department.
Though Mukasey was initially hailed as a fair and moderate choice, his confirmation process stalled after he refused to answer questions from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on whether he viewed waterboarding, a controversial detainee interrogation tactic, as torture.
Mukasey later earned the votes of key Democrats on the judiciary panel when he pledged to uphold any law passed by Congress that made waterboarding illegal. He sought to further assuage critics in a follow-up letter to the panel in which he stated that he found the tactic “repugnant.”
Still, some Democrats questioned whether Mukasey’s views would be independent of those of the Bush administration.
“Judge Mukasey’s answer to the waterboarding question was important in itself, but it also raised to me serious doubts about whether he is prepared to be the truly independent voice that the Justice Department so desperately needs,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, according to Reuters.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California argued that Mukasey was the only choice to bring some much needed leadership to the embattled Justice Department. Feinstein said the choice was between “whether to confirm Michael Mukasey as the next attorney general or whether to leave the Department of Justice without a real leader for the next 14 months.”
Mukasey’s nomination was saved largely by Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who had suggested Bush pick the nominee and then defended Mukasey when he came under scrutiny.
“No one questions that Judge Mukasey would do much to turn around the Justice Department,” Schumer said in the Reuters report. “We should give him that chance. There’s too much at stake not to.”
Six Democrats and one Independent joined Republicans to confirm the 81st attorney general in the full Senate vote.
After the vote, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised the new attorney general, calling him “one of the most qualified candidates ever nominated for the position.”
President Bush thanked the Senate for confirming Mukasey.
“Judge Mukasey will lead the Justice Department as it works to protect the American people whether from drug traffickers and other criminals on our streets or from terrorists who seek to attack our homeland,” Bush said in a statement.