Cabinet Fights Unlikely

Posted November 15, 2004 at 6:37pm

President Bush is unlikely to face strong opposition from Democrats as he seeks to fill a half-dozen newly vacant Cabinet posts, as the minority party instead focuses its energy on what seems likely to develop into an epic battle over the next Supreme Court nominee.

By tradition, the opposition party rarely denies a president his top choice of Cabinet officials, but it has at times used confirmation hearings to question a nominee’s credentials or the administration’s policy goals.

Former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) came under intense questioning by Democrats in 2001 during his confirmation hearings to be attorney general, with criticism focusing largely on his cultural conservatism and opposition to Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White’s nomination to the federal bench.

And Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s (R) nomination to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was put on hold for several weeks in 2003 by Democrats to protest Bush’s environmental policies. Both men were eventually approved by the Senate.

Privately, Democrats said they plan to pursue a similar strategy when the Senate reviews a new slate of Cabinet nominees early next year, but Democrats acknowledge they must pick their fights carefully after devastating losses in this year’s elections.

“There could be somebody outrageous, which in that case we would put up a fight, but assuming he puts forth a slate of experienced, reasonable voices and leaders, it is likely we would be agreeable,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide, who spoke openly about political strategy on the condition of anonymity.

For the past two years, Republicans have described Democrats as obstructionists — a label GOP strategists and lawmakers credit for defeating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and for preventing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) from denying Bush a second term in the White House. Democrats argued there is no firm data to prove that point and said they would continue to oppose some of Bush’s judicial picks and prepare for a political war over the next nominee to the Supreme Court.

“I can’t imagine there is much willingness in the Caucus to engage the administration in a bloody debate over Cabinet nominations knowing full well that we have a whole host of judges to deal with in the next year including a likely Supreme Court nomination or two,” said another senior Democratic aide, who requested anonymity.

The Senate returns today for a lame-duck session where raising the debt ceiling and approving must-pass spending bills are likely to be the only work Congress is able to complete this year.

Still, the various Senate committees of jurisdiction are preparing for at least six separate confirmation hearings in January to fill the positions left open due to the recent resignations of several Cabinet secretaries. The White House publicly announced Monday that four more department heads are stepping down following the resignations of two others last week.

The administration now needs to find replacements for Energy Secretary Spence Abraham, Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. There are a total of 15 secretaries in the president’s Cabinet. President Bush has nominated his counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to replace Ashcroft at the Justice Department.

The White House is invariably tight-lipped about any personnel announcement — let alone those concerning the identities of possible Cabinet selections.

Administration spokesmen, by custom, refuse to “speculate” about forthcoming nominations, and many GOP strategists have given up predicting the president’s personnel moves.

“They play their cards real close to the vest on these things,” said Charlie Black, a top Republican strategist. “Anybody outside the [inner circle] who tells you he knows who the nominees will be probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy refused to provide any information regarding forthcoming nominees. As for the timing of the selections, she said, “Obviously, whenever there is a vacancy the president wants to go as quickly as possible” to fill it.

GOP insiders are confident that they know one thing about the process, however: that it is being tightly scripted by the White House.

“The president likes controlled explosions,” one GOP strategist close to the White House said on Monday.

The strategist noted that Powell’s resignation letter was dated the previous Friday, Nov. 12. From that, he divined that the turnaround on nominations was likely to be swift.

Powell’s resignation “was kept totally under wraps all weekend,” the strategist said. “That tells you this is a completely controlled process” and nominees for the new vacancies would likely be named shortly.

In this environment, GOP insiders warn that there is little use speculating about Cabinet replacements. But the party establishment appears confident that President Bush intends to choose National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for one of the top posts — either secretary of State or Pentagon chief, if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joins the exodus.

One GOP strategist suggested that Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) had, because of his home state’s election of a Republican governor this month, likely moved to the top of the list of choices for Agriculture secretary. Indiana Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels (R), Bush’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, would select the replacement if Lugar departs.

The strategist also suggested that outgoing Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (D) may be in line for a Cabinet job — most likely Agriculture secretary — if, as some have suggested, the president seeks to appoint a Democrat for his second term. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former Democratic Representative from California, has not indicated whether he plans to stay. However, one top GOP strategist, Grover Norquist, said speculation about a possible appointment of another Democrat to the Bush Cabinet is purely “inside Washington” parlor talk.

“It’s a Democratic fantasy that after [they have been] crushed in the election that there is now an opportunity for the president to reach out to the Democrats with a Cabinet post,” Norquist said.