Confirmations Kick Off

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:58pm

Unlike with previous new administrations, where nomination fights often wound up being brutal and politically costly, the vast majority of President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet picks appears headed for a smooth confirmation within a matter of weeks.

The proof will come quickly, however, as Democrats push to confirm Obama’s nominees in record time, beginning today when the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee takes up the nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to serve as the new secretary of Health and Human Services.

Over the coming days, various Senate committees are expected to take up a host of Obama’s nominations. On Friday, the HELP Committee will take up the nomination of Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) to be Labor secretary, while the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday will take up the nomination of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to be secretary of State and on Thursday will hold a hearing on Obama’s pick of Susan Rice to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, the Environment and Public Works Committee will take up the nominations of Lisa Jackson to be Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Nancy Helen Sutley to become chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday also will hold a hearing on Obama’s nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) as Agriculture secretary, while the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee will hold two days of nomination hearings next week on the nomination of Shaun Donovan to become Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Republicans and Democrats alike seemed content to pursue an unusually aggressive confirmation pace for Obama — an effort made easier by the fact that many of the nominees are considered centrists, are current or former Members of the House and Senate, or have enjoyed fairly high-profile positions, such as Vilsack.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also has publicly indicated he would like to work with Obama to fill the new Cabinet as quickly as possible, and Republicans said with few exceptions the president-elect has offered largely noncontroversial appointees.

“Sen. McConnell pledged several weeks ago to help move the nominations along as quickly as possible,” a GOP leadership aide said, adding that McConnell thinks it would be unwise to have “a vacuum at the top spots” in most departments given the economic situation facing the country.

While most of the public attention has been on Obama’s nomination of Eric Holder to become the new attorney general, Republicans acknowledge that most of the other nominees will not face a significant fight in the chamber. Holder’s involvement in a series of controversial pardons — including billionaire Marc Rich and a group of Puerto Rican terrorists — while working as deputy attorney general under the Clinton administration have been highlighted by Republicans.

“Holder will be a fight … [and] on most of the others, obviously we’ll make our concerns known,” a GOP leadership aide said, adding that, “At the same time, we’re not going to say ‘no’ to all of them just to have a fight.”

Holder, however, is likely to be the lone spot for serious partisan sparring on Obama’s nominations, at least during this first round.

But with their numbers severely diminished as a result of the past two election cycles, it appears unlikely that GOP Senators will use traditional filibuster and procedural tactics to block Holder’s nomination, or anyone else’s. One senior GOP aide explained that Republicans will look to replicate the success Democrats had in 2005 when they used the committee process to block John Bolton from becoming the new U.N. ambassador.

Although initially Bolton’s nomination seemed secure, it suddenly unraveled when Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee attacked Bolton’s lack of interpersonal skills and raised allegations of workplace discrimination to sway Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) to pull their support.

Although the fate of Holder, whose nomination goes before the Judiciary Committee next Thursday, remains unclear, most Republicans and Democrats believe he will win confirmation in the end.

Democrats, led by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), have accused Republicans of attempting to make Holder their No. 1 target for a fight.

“He’s going to be confirmed. I’ve already had a number of Republicans tell me they’re going to vote for him,” Leahy said, adding, “When they unanimously supported probably the least qualified attorney general that anybody can remember — Alberto Gonzales — to turn around and … say, ‘We enthusiastically, unanimously support Alberto Gonzales, but gosh we’re kind of concerned about Eric Holder, a man who was first nominated by Ronald Reagan who served in every significant position in law enforcement there is.’”

But Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has insisted questions about Holder have nothing to do with his résumé, or politics, but rather about whether he has the independence needed to run the Justice Department in the wake of the Gonzales debacle.

“There is also the issue of character. Sometimes it is more important for an attorney general to have the stature and courage to say ‘no’ rather than to say ‘yes,’” Specter argued in a floor speech this week.