Confirmation Wars Could Be Thing of the Past

Posted November 20, 2008 at 5:53pm

Senate Republicans will not stand in the way of nominations made by President-elect Barack Obama, despite the bruising campaign and the prospect that they will have severe ideological differences with the picks, according to senior GOP lawmakers and their aides.

Nevertheless, Senators plan to scrutinize the nominees closely, and they warn Obama not to put forward people with the type of obvious flaws and damning histories that have plagued failed nominations in the past.

“There will be no effort on our part to slow stuff down,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a Judiciary Committee member. Other leading Republicans echoed Kyl’s comments.

“I’m very respectful of a president’s right to pick his key people,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and is a key ally of defeated GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). “Unless there is a major ethical problem, I expect them to do well,” he said of Obama’s prospective nominees.

Several Republicans had positive things to say about Eric Holder, who is Obama’s leading choice for attorney general but who might face some turbulence on his path toward the Justice Department.

While respectful of his work, Republicans are concerned about Holder’s role in former President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon in 2001 of fugitive financier Marc Rich. The GOP is certain to revisit the issue in January if Holder is tapped.

“I think everyone thinks he’s very competent,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), another Judiciary panel member. “But we’ll have to go eight years back” to look at the Rich pardon, he added.

Obama aides are ruthlessly screening potential nominees to exhume any skeletons that might spook the Senate.

They have good cause to do so. However amiable Republican may decide to be, it is worth remembering that the past three presidents have all seen initial Cabinet nominees go down to defeat on the Senate floor or have had to withdraw nominations in the face of controversy.

In 1989, the Senate actually ate one of its own, rejecting President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of former Texas GOP Sen. John Tower to be secretary of Defense. While there were a variety of reasons Tower’s nomination went down — including concerns about his ties to defense contractors — his most prominent problem was that he was accused of being a drinker and a womanizer.

In 1993, Clinton was forced to withdraw the nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general after it was revealed that she had hired illegal immigrants to serve as her chauffeur and nanny. And in 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the nomination of Linda Chavez to be secretary of Labor amid controversy over money and housing that she had provided to an illegal immigrant.

Graham said it was his job to “ask probing questions.” But he added that he wanted to avoid scenarios such as what he indicated was an excessive and unwarranted probe into the personal backgrounds of two Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Grassley vowed to use the nominating process to try to ensure that the Obama administration is not as resistant to the scrutiny of lawmakers as the Bush officials have been.

“I’m going to hit every nominee with the question, ‘Are you open to Congressional oversight?’” Grassley said.

One thing Obama appears ready to do that will help make for a halcyon nomination process is to start nominating present or former Senators for the Cabinet.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has been tapped to be secretary of Health and Human Services, while the leading candidates for secretary of State are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Tower is the only Senator ever to have been given the thumbs-down by his former colleagues for a Cabinet position.

“A Senator’s probably got a leg up on everyone,” Grassley said with a wry smile.