By Laurie Kellman -- Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Michael Mukasey, President Bush's choice to be the next attorney general, on Sept. 18 began his courtship of senators who will question him about his independence from the White House and his fitness to head the troubled Justice Department.
If the majority Democrats had any objections to the nominee, they were not naming any on Sept. 18.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, perhaps the most powerful senator to consider the nomination, said he wanted to help Mukasey sail through the confirmation process without a ''witch hunt'' by conservatives.
Holding up the confirmation process apparently is not the nominee himself but a standoff between Leahy and the White House over information the chairman is seeking on the administration's interrogation and eavesdropping programs. Leahy, D-Vt., said that his talks with White House counsel Fred Fielding have progressed and that, in turn, Leahy has narrowed his request.
''I met with Judge Mukasey today hoping that after we get cooperation from the administration and are able to conduct a fair and thorough review process, all senators will be able to vote in favor of his confirmation,'' Leahy told reporters after the session in the senator's Capitol Hill office. When asked if he has any objections to Mukasey's nomination alone, Leahy did not answer.
The White House called on Leahy to separate the nomination from the dispute with Fielding, who has declared some of the information the Democrats are seeking as off-limits under executive privilege.
Citing the swift confirmation of attorneys general past, White House spokesman Dana Perino said the president would like to see Mukasey confirmed by Oct. 8, Columbus Day.
Perino said the administration believes the quest for documents is unrelated to the nomination and confirmation of Mukasey, adding, ''We see them as separate tracks.''
Next on the nominee's schedule were other senior senators with a lot to say about his future: ranking Republican and former Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, committee member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Mukasey was to wrap up his visit with a meeting with an unlikely patron, a Democrat already in his corner: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who suggested him for the job during conversations with Fielding.
Mukasey, nominated to his federal judgeship by President Reagan, is a former reporter who became a tough-on-terrorism jurist with an independent streak.
That bent toward independent thinking has been embraced by Democrats who said they wanted Bush to select a not-too-partisan figure. If confirmed, Mukasey would succeed Gonzales, Bush's longtime friend and fellow Texan who quit after months of senators' demands for his resignation and investigations that called his credibility into doubt.