Senate approval of Obama's Cabinet won't be slam-dunk

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President-Elect Barack Obama's Cabinet nominees march to Capitol Hill for Senate confirmation hearings where — minus a few bumps — they're expected to breeze through with little opposition and few surprises.

Or will they?

Recent history has shown that the confirmation process is an imperfect science in which even the most-qualified, most-well-known, most-vetted nominee can get tripped up and fail — sometimes even before a hearing's opening gavel strikes.

"It's never smooth sailing, no matter how pristine the record might be," said Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University. "Sometimes the most innocent nominee, the most harmless nominee, is the perfect hostage for concessions from the administration."

Senate Democrats and Republicans began an aggressive confirmation schedule with hearings for former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota to be secretary of health and human services, and the nominee for secretary of labor, Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up the nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to be secretary of state on Tuesday and Obama's choice of Susan Rice to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will look at Lisa Jackson's nomination to be Environmental Protection Agency administrator on Wednesday while the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee will hold a hearing on former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's nomination as agriculture secretary.

Perhaps the most dramatic hearing will occur on Jan. 15 when senators quiz Eric Holder on his nomination to be attorney general. Republicans said they'd press Holder, a former deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, on his role in Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2000. Still, lawmakers from both parties and political experts expect Holder to be confirmed.

"It's not automatic," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said of the overall confirmation process. "But the chief executive deserves the benefit of the doubt, unless there's an ethical lapse or incompetence."

The potential of an Obama confirmation embarrassment lessened when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew from consideration to be commerce secretary because of a federal investigation of a company that donated to his political action committees.

The path for former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to be CIA director became less rocky when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, softened her objections to Panetta's lack of operational intelligence experience.

That said, Republican lawmakers — and some Democrats — could to try to hold up some of Obama's sub-cabinet appointments for political reasons or to extract something from the incoming president, according to NYU's Light.

Light said that Dawn E. Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor tapped by Obama to lead the Office of Legal Counsel, could be a prime target. Johnsen's been highly critical of Bush administration memos on torture.

"My view is there's always one," Light said. "I suspect she'll have a rough hearing from Republicans."

The confirmation road to cabinet and judicial posts is littered with slam-dunk candidates who wound up getting slammed instead.

In 2001, President George W. Bush wanted conservative activist Linda Chavez to be labor secretary. Chavez's views on issues were well known from her television appearances and editorial writings.

Prior to Chavez's confirmation hearing, however, she was forced to withdraw from consideration because it was revealed that she gave money and shelter to an illegal immigrant who'd been living in her home for years.

Similarly, Ted Sorensen, nominated for CIA director by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, withdrew his name over his conscientious objector status in World War II, his use of classified material during his service in the Kennedy administration and other issues.

In recent administrations, opponents have focused on one nominee while letting most others go through easily.

In 1989, Texas Sen. John Tower was picked by President George H. W. Bush to head the Pentagon. After reports about his drinking and ties to defense contractors were aired, he was denied confirmation by a 53 to 47 vote, making him the first person in 30 years to be rejected for a Cabinet post.

Four years later, President Bill Clinton had a spate of bad luck with his nominees. Zoe Baird, Clinton's first choice for attorney general, had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny and failed to pay the employee's Social Security taxes.

His second choice, Kimba Wood, also had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny and was forced to withdraw. Lani Guinier, Clinton's choice for assistant attorney general, was forced to walk away from her nomination because some senators thought her views on empowering African-Americans were too radical.

Senators go after or reject nominees for political, ideological, or sometimes, personal reasons.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has opposed only a handful of nominees in his 28 years in the Senate, and in two instances, he later apologized for his votes. Dodd opposed the federal judgeship nomination of former Sen. James Buckley, who ran against Dodd for the Senate in 1980.

"I ran against him, and it was a pretty nasty thing," Dodd recalled. "And, after a few years, he did a great job, and I felt so badly about it, I wrote him an apology. I couldn't take the vote back, but I kind of regret I voted against you."

Senators aren't above procedurally holding up a nomination to get a pet project approved or to get a promise of being an influential player in a key initiative, such as Obama's economic stimulus package.

It's a practice that even some of Obama's administration picks have done on the other side of the hearing table.

Clinton and other Senate Democrats threatened to hold up the 2005 nomination of Steve Johnson to head the Environmental Protection Agency to force the agency to conduct an analysis of the public health benefits of various clean air legislative proposals.

In 2002, Sen. Joe Biden, who's now the vice president-elect, temporarily held up two of Bush's Transportation Department nominees to vent his frustration over what he thought was insufficient funding by the Republican-controlled Congress for Amtrak, Biden's regular mode of transportation from his Wilmington, Del., home to his Capitol Hill job.

"I do not know what else to do," Biden said at the time, "stand on my head in the middle of the well to get the attention of people around here?"

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