Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, appeared to secure her confirmation on Tuesday after winning support from key Senate Democrat Mark Warner.
The announcement of the Virginian’s endorsement triggered a flurry of additional Democratic backers, handing Mr. Trump a victory in what has been seen across Washington as the hardest fought nomination battle of his presidency.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, later added to the momentum by saying the full Senate would consider Ms. Haspel’s confirmation earlier than expected with a vote at the end of this week.
The longtime veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service and current acting director now appears likely to be the first woman to run the agency in its 70 year history.
She is also the first career CIA officer to rise directly to the post since Richard Helms was confirmed 52 years ago during the Johnson Administration.
But since Mr. Trump nominated her earlier this spring to replace Mike Pompeo, who was sworn in recently as secretary of state, a debate has raged over whether the CIA’s harsh interrogation program was necessary amid America’s worldwide pursuit of suspected terrorists in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Critics called the interrogation techniques, which included waterboarding, torture.
Last week, Ms. Haspel appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and emboldened her critics — who blasted her for not being more forceful in denouncing torture, especially concerning her work overseeing a CIA secret prison in Thailand in 2002 where waterboarding was used and videotaped.
On Monday, Ms. Haspel wrote Mr. Warner, the top Democrat on that committee, and admitted that with the benefit of hindsight that “the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Warner said he had asked Ms. Haspel to write her views on the agency’s interrogation program because he thought she expressed greater regret in private meetings than she did during last week’s contentious committee confirmation hearing.
“I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the President if ordered to do something illegal or immoral — like a return to torture,” Mr. Warner said, adding that she enjoyed “strong support” from across the intelligence community.
On Wednesday, Republican members of the committee are expected to unanimously approve Ms. Haspel’s confirmation in a closed-door session.
For weeks across Capitol Hill it had been seen as a tossup how the full Senate would then vote.
While she needed only 50 votes, Republicans enjoy just a slim 51-49 majority in the chamber, and at least two, John McCain, Arizona, and Rand Paul, Kentucky, were lined up against her.
By late Tuesday, five Democratic senators, including Mr. Warner, Joe Manchin III, West Virginia, Joe Donnelly, Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota and Bill Nelson, Florida, had pledged their support.