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Mukasey, Leahy Have 'Meat Locker' Hearing

So much for the warm feelings that abounded throughout yesterday's confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Michael B. Mukasey.

About 90 minutes into this morning's tense round of questioning, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) looked around at his staff and complained the room felt like a "meat locker."

"I'm glad someone else noticed," retorted Mukasey, almost shaking his shoulders as if to shiver in the chilly room.

Perhaps no one on the dais or at the witness table noticed the chill in the air yesterday because Leahy and other Democrats were pleased with with Mukasey's answers.

But the relations between senators and the nominee became as cool as the air after today's morning round of questions, which visibly upset Leahy. While no one would say Mukasey was in any danger of not getting confirmed, Leahy told reporters after the morning round that he was concerned with the "sudden change" in Mukasey's answers on the limits of presidential power.

Even the chairman's reading material suggested a certain cool state of being at today's testimony. Set just to Leahy's left during the questioning were two books that are not exactly best-sellers inside the West Wing: "Takeover: Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy" by Charlie Savage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories about President Bush using "signing statements" to subvert congressional intent on laws; and "The Terror Presidency", an inside account of the legal thinking behind some of the Justice Department's most controversial anti-terror rulings by ex-Justice official Jack Goldsmith.

Mukasey's answers today are not necessarily a flip-flop from yesterday's hearing, but they are more explicit than they were yesterday, as Dan Eggen and I reported.

The clearest example is on contempt of Congress charges. Several contempt charges have been approved by the House Judiciary Committee against current and former White House officials related to their refusal to testify in the ongoing probes of the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys, and Leahy suggested a "real probability" more were on the way. Yesterday, in discussing Bush's assertion of executive privilege over staffers' testimony, Mukasey indicated there was some merit to the White House claim that the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia could not bring contempt charges against someone who refused to testify to Congress.

"It simply can't be appropriate for the same department that offered the opinion then to turn around and prosecute somebody who followed it," Mukasey said.

Yesterday he had left himself a little more wiggle room: "I hope and pray for a lot of things. One of them is that I don't ever have to make that decision. But when I make it, I'm going to make it in line with the principles I've just discussed."

Leahy was not alone in his criticism. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) complained that Mukasey was being "contradictory" in his answers on presidential powers related to anti-terror measures, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) complained about the prosecution of journalists for not revealing their sources and promoted a new shield law for reporters -- a position that Mukasey, a former reporter with the UPI, did not support for national security concerns. He pointed to the jailing of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, in the CIA leak probe earlier this decade, as something that might have been a "bad case" but that it could also lead to a "bad law."

When Leahy finally broke for a lunch break, he said the hearing would resume at 2 p.m. -- which it did for about 30 minutes more of similar questioning. But then Leahy expressed hope for the afternoon round: "We'll try to get the place warmed up before then."

By Paul Kane  |  October 18, 2007; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  Hearing Watch  
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