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Bush: Mukasey's approval crucial to U.S. security

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  • NEW: Sen. Edward Kennedy says Bush misleading public about what's at stake
  • President urges Senate panel to move quickly on attorney general nomination
  • President Bush also calls on Congress to pass spending bills for military
  • Bush says he's not in lame-duck mode but "sprinting to the finish line"
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(CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to move quickly to approve his nominee for attorney general, saying it's crucial to national security to fill the position.

"In a time of war, it's vital for the president to have a full national security team in place," the president said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "A vital part of that is the attorney general."

Bush has nominated retired federal Judge Michael Mukasey for the job. The Senate Judiciary Committee has held up approval, in part over Mukasey's reluctance to state his categorical opposition to the use of waterboarding as a coercion tactic in questioning terror suspects.

Human rights groups consider waterboarding -- a technique in which prisoners are made to feel as if they were drowning -- a form of torture.

Mukasey told senators that while he found the practice personally "repugnant," he could not answer "hypothetical" questions about whether the technique violates a U.S. ban on the use of torture.

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination Tuesday.

Several leading Democratic senators have said they will oppose Mukasey because of the waterboarding issue and questions about his views on the president's power to order electronic surveillance.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, who on Thursday said he opposes Mukasey's nomination, accused Bush of misleading the public about "what is at stake."

"We did not ask Judge Mukasey to pass judgment on any classified program. We asked him to provide his legal judgment on the question of whether waterboarding is illegal," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement. "This is a straightforward question, and one that has been answered in the affirmative by countless legal experts from across the political spectrum. ... Judge Mukasey's failure to agree with this widely held view demonstrates that he lacks either the judgment or the independence that the Department of Justice desperately needs."

Others remain undecided, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Judiciary Committee member and the leading Democratic advocate for Mukasey when his nomination was first announced.

"Senate leaders must move this nomination out of committee, bring it to the Senate floor and confirm this good man," the president said.

Bush also blasted Congress for failing to act on intelligence legislation that is "vital to protect the American people in this war on terror."

He said passage of the Protect America Act, which supporters say would strengthen the ability of U.S. agents to collect foreign intelligence on terrorists overseas, is necessary to prevent a gap in intelligence collection.

Bush also called on Congress to pass spending bills for the military that include provisions for troops in the war zone, saying they should spend more time listening to the threats of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and "less time responding to the demands of MoveOn.org bloggers and Code Pink protesters."

"Congress should not go home for the holidays while our men and women in uniform are waiting the funds they need," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Democrats said Bush and other GOP leaders were keeping them from implementing some of their top priorities, including a new policy for the Iraq war and an expansion of a popular federally funded children's health insurance program.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said those measures were "blocked far too often by a do-nothing president and his Republican accomplices."

"The president has consistently refused to follow Congress' lead to change flawed and failing policies in Iraq," he said.

Earlier this week, Hoyer called Bush "the biggest obstacle" to extending health coverage and said his comments on appropriations bills and fiscal responsibility "ring hollow."

"The fact is, this administration has pursued the most fiscally irresponsible policies in American history, turning record surpluses into record deficits and adding more than $3 trillion to the national debt," Hoyer said in a statement.

Bush sought to dispel illusions that his presidency is already in lame-duck mode, 14 months ahead of the end of his term.

Bush told Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner that he should put on his running shoes, "because my spirits are high and my energy level is good, and I'm sprinting to the finish line." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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