Michael Mukasey, President George Bush's nominee for Attorney General, appears all but assured of Senate confirmation this week despite his refusal to characterise tough US interrogation techniques as torture.
Two leading Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, dropped objections to Mr Mukasey's nomination, apparently after a closed-door meeting in which he promised to uphold any future law passed by Congress explicitly defining one method, called water-boarding, as torture.
Their climbdown was questioned by critics from all sides of the political spectrum about what it would mean for America's future prosecution of the "war on terror".
Liberals accused the two senators of acting as apologists for torture, and conservatives said the hesitation they and their fellow Democrats have shown over the nomination only demonstrates their weakness on questions of national security.
Until recently, Mr Mukasey, a former federal judge from New York, appeared to be gliding towards the Attorney General's job because his intellectual heft and reputation for judicial independence made him a breath of fresh air after his widely derided predecessor, the highly political Bush apparatchik Alberto Gonzales.
But that changed when he refused to pronounce on the legality of waterboarding, which many human rights groups define as a violation of the Geneva Conventions as well as the sort of "cruel and unusual punishment" barred by the US Constitution.
Some legal scholars say Mr Mukasey had no choice, and that to define waterboarding as torture would force him, as Attorney General, to open a criminal investigation into its use that would almost certainly reach the higher echelons of the Bush administration.
Senators Feinstein and Schumer gave Mr Mukasey the green light after asking him what he would do if Congress passed a law giving explicit definitions of torture.
"He flatly told me that the President would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law," Mr Schumer said. "He also pledged to enforce such a law and repeated his willingness to leave office rather than participate in a violation of law."
Critics said this assurance was virtually meaningless, because no law on torture was likely to overcome President Bush's veto power.