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Under White House Pressure, Senate Approves Mukasey, Defense Bill

The Senate late Thursday checked off two key boxes on its long to-do list, passing a Defense spending bill that includes provisions funding the entire government through Dec. 14 and approving Michael Mukasey as the new attorney general.

The Senate passed the combined Defense spending bill and short-term continuing resolution by a voice vote late Thursday evening, while it voted 53-40 to approve the nomination of Mukasey. Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) broke with their party and voted for Mukasey.

Earlier in the day it appeared the Senate was headed for more gridlock when one of the year’s oddest coalitions came together on the Republican side. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), conservative firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) came together to rally Republicans around a threat to split the continuing resolution from the Defense bill. The unlikely trio for much of the day demanded that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agree to a Stevens proposal to include “bridge” funding for the military that would help fund the war in Iraq while Congress works on a supplemental appropriations bill.

With the majority of Republicans backing their colleagues’ gambit and Democrats refusing to budge on the war spending, the two parties spent much of the afternoon in a drawn-out staring contest.

But, according to Republican aides, by mid-evening the White House — which has rankled Democrats for its unwillingness to seriously compromise in war funding fights — blinked first and began pressing Republicans to agree to the spending package, so long as the chamber also voted on the Mukasey nomination.

A clearly unhappy Stevens announced the deal in a floor speech Thursday evening, saying he was reluctantly backing off his threat to split the bill. “I have said that I would offer a motion to invoke rule 28 against this bill, but upon real reflection and after talking to the people in the administration, including the reports I have from statements made by the Office of Management and Budget and the president, the intention is I think to see that this Defense bill is passed,” he said.

Republicans who have argued for a more aggressive approach to challenging Democrats’ appropriations floor strategy said they hoped the abortive push to split the CR from the Defense bill was a sign that the party’s disparate factions were coming closer together.

Stevens, a longtime appropriator, is the standard-bearer of the party’s old guard that supports earmarking and has openly criticized conservatives during several of the GOP’s weekly luncheons in recent months. DeMint, meanwhile has led the party’s growing cadre of Senate conservatives in a crusade against earmarks while Kyl and the rest of leadership has often found itself attempting to play traffic cop between the party’s two wings.

“It was a good effort, and hopefully they’ll keep it up,” one GOP aide said.

As expected, the Senate narrowly confirmed Mukasey, who, while being originally suggested by Schumer, ran into trouble over the White House’s torture policies. Indeed, the nomination, like a number of President Bush’s previous Cabinet selections, became a proxy fight between the administration and Democrats.

For instance, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a floor statement that much of his decision to oppose Mukasey was based not on his qualifications but the behavior of the Bush administration.

“I wish that I could support Judge Mukasey’s nomination,” Leahy said. “I like Michael Mukasey. But this is an administration that has been acting outside the law and an administration that has now created a ‘confirmation contortion.’ When many of us voted to confirm General Petraeus, the administration turned around and, for political advantage, tried to claim that when we voted to confirm the nominee, we also voted for the president’s war policies. Just as I do not support this president’s Iraq policy, I do not support his torture policy or his views of unaccountability or unlimited executive power.”

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