WASHINGTON – Democratic support for attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey dwindled further Wednesday over his refusal to comment on the legality of a harsh CIA interrogation technique, setting the stage for an unexpectedly close vote next week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., announced that they will join Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., in voting against Mukasey on the Judiciary panel, after the nominee said in a four-page letter to Senate Democrats that he does not know whether a type of simulated drowning called waterboarding constitutes illegal torture under U.S. law.

Other Democrats on the Judiciary panel have pointedly refused to disclose how they will vote during a special meeting to consider Mukasey’s nomination, which has been scheduled for Tuesday. Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also declined to say whether he will allow the nomination go to the full Senate with a negative recommendation, which occurred with some past nominations.

White House officials said Wednesday that they remain confident Mukasey will be confirmed, and Republicans again accused the Democrats of attempting to hold the nomination hostage to score political points. “No one is ready to declare it DOA,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The nomination has become a particularly thorny problem for Mukasey’s original Senate patron, Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. He had suggested Mukasey as a consensus nominee to the White House and declared two weeks ago that he should be confirmed, but he was noncommittal Wednesday.

“I’m reading the letter, I’m going over it,” Schumer told reporters. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that Mukasey’s “confirmation is at risk.” But he said the nominee went “about as far as he can go” in repudiating waterboarding without endangering classified programs or U.S. personnel involved in the interrogations.

If Specter and other eight GOP committee members support him, Mukasey will need support from just one Democrat to win approval from the committee, which is divided 10 to 9 along party lines.

Durbin and Whitehouse denounced the nomination on the Senate floor Wednesday. “If we are going to restore the image of the United States of America, the highest law enforcement officer should be clear, firm, unequivocal: that waterboarding and torture are unacceptable, un-American, illegal and unconstitutional,” Durbin said.

Whitehouse, in an impassioned speech, said: “Will we join that gloomy historical line leading from the Inquisition, through the prisons of tyrant regimes, through gulags and dark cells, and through Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers? Will that be the path we choose?”

Waterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to an inclined board and pouring water onto his face to simulate drowning. It was used against at least three CIA detainees since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks under procedures deemed legal by the Justice Department.

In his letter Tuesday, Mukasey said that the practice seems “over the line” and “repugnant” but that he does not have enough information to determine if it is illegal. He noted that Congress had outlawed the practice by the U.S. military, but not by the CIA.

Human Rights Watch, which announced its opposition to the nomination Wednesday, criticized Mukasey for saying he did not have enough information to reach a conclusion. “If Mukasey had been asked about the rack and thumbscrew, would he have said that it depends on the circumstances?” said Kenneth Roth, the group’s executive director. “The only reason to equivocate on waterboarding is to protect administration officials who authorized it from possible prosecution.”

All four senators seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have vowed to oppose Mukasey’s confirmation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was tortured during captivity in Vietnam, has criticized fellow GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani, a longtime Mukasey friend who said that determining whether waterboarding is torture “depends on the circumstances.”

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