Skip to content

Nomination Battles Are Flourishing

President Barack Obama, who once fantasized about a dream Cabinet fashioned after Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” now faces the less glamorous task of filling his second-term Cabinet.

And that process — like so many other polarizing subjects in Washington these days — has not been easy. Obama’s rumored first choice for secretary of State, United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice, withdrew her name from consideration after Republicans launched a campaign against her because of public comments she made in the aftermath of the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. And Obama’s selections for Defense, Treasury and the CIA have faced similar troubles as senators seek answers on everything from that terrorist attack to the classified drone program and the administration’s outlook for Medicare.

A successful filibuster of any Cabinet nominee would be the first in U.S. history, but senators do have a precedent of stalling nominees they find questionable until they get the answers they want or the nominee withdraws.

Not all of Obama’s picks face intense scrutiny, but even in the cases where his selections are not controversial, the job ahead for his appointees is far from simple.

Department of Defense: Chuck Hagel

Hagel’s nomination fight has been one of the most contentious in recent memory, with Republicans still mulling whether they will force a time-consuming 60-vote threshold on his confirmation, even though it seems there would be enough votes to overcome such an attempted filibuster.

In recent days, Republicans opposed to Hagel sought to delay a vote in the Armed Services Committee in an attempt to strengthen their hand in the wake of Hagel’s uneven performance before the panel last week. That effort paid off Wednesday when Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced the panel’s review of the nomination was not yet complete.

Hagel’s record as a two-term senator and past controversial remarks he made came under intense scrutiny at that confirmation hearing. Senators pressed him on statements in which he challenged the closeness of lawmakers to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, his position on Iranian sanctions, and negative comments he once made about openly gay people serving in the military. But GOP lawmakers also clearly had a beef to settle over Hagel’s opposition to certain policies in Iraq advocated by President George W. Bush, such as the surge in troops.

Hagel is still likely to be confirmed, but with the recent media focus on national security policy and programs such as Obama’s drone program, there is sure to be more airing of grievances. If a GOP senator attempts to filibuster Hagel’s nomination, Democrats may need only five Republican votes to beat it back. That appears doable, even if those five turn around and vote against Hagel’s actual confirmation.

Department of Treasury: Jacob J. Lew

In a widely anticipated move, Obama selected Lew — his most recent chief of staff — to replace Timothy F. Geithner as Treasury secretary. Lew is a Washington veteran, having served as a key adviser and director of Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, a role he later reprised for Obama. In addition, he did a stint at the State Department during his time with the Obama administration.

Lew hasn’t always had an easy relationship with Capitol Hill lawmakers, but then again, he was largely responsible for Obama’s budget portfolio at an especially contentious time, with Congress lurching from one self-inflicted shutdown crisis to another. Scheduling Lew’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee has taken a good bit of time as lawmakers are meeting with him personally and reviewing his finances.

Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions has led the charge against Lew, hinting at a potential filibuster. The Alabama Republican has criticized Lew for what the senator has called misleading testimony regarding past administration budget submissions. Earlier this week, Sessions sought to use Lew’s nomination as leverage to extract a Medicare spending plan from the administration.

Sessions won’t be voting at the committee level. But top Republicans on the Finance Committee, such as Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, have not yet said whether they can support Lew’s nomination.

Department of the Interior: Sally Jewell

Obama on Wednesday picked Jewell, CEO of outdoor sporting goods company REI, to replace Ken Salazar as his next secretary of the Interior. Jewell, a former banking executive, is the first woman selected to serve in Obama’s second-term Cabinet. The administration had taken some heat for not having a more diverse core of Cabinet officials and advisers to the president.

Obama’s pick of Jewell was largely applauded by environmental groups, and her private sector background ultimately could make her appealing to Republicans. After Jewell’s selection Wednesday, lawmakers on relevant panels to the Interior released lukewarm statements on the pick, largely because Jewell is an unknown commodity inside the Beltway.

“The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member. “I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department.”

Central Intelligence Agency: John O. Brennan

Brennan’s confirmation hearing could be just as testy as Hagel’s, especially with the recent leak of an administration white paper on drone strikes that provided a legal basis for carrying out fatal drone strikes against U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, indicated Wednesday that he might filibuster Brennan’s nomination in order to get more information about the controversial drone program. This is Brennan’s second shot at the top Intelligence position in the country. He withdrew his name from consideration for Obama’s first Cabinet amid concerns that he supported the use of enhanced interrogation tactics — which its critics call torture — at the CIA under Bush.

As a top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to the president, Brennan has been at the center of the most politically charged intelligence issues of the past four years, including the drone program and a series of leaks from the administration last spring on national security issues. The issue of intelligence leaks has been a favorite of Republicans, and many of them likely will revisit those and other issues during Brennan’s hearing Thursday.

Department of Transportation

Obama has not yet officially named a replacement for Ray LaHood, the former Republican congressman from the president’s home state of Illinois. One name that is being floated for LaHood’s successor is current National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman. Hersman was first appointed to the NTSB under Bush in 2004 and was made chairwoman by Obama in 2009 and 2011. The Senate unanimously confirmed her both times.

Department of Labor

Obama is leaning toward naming Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia to replace Hilda L. Solis as the head of the Labor Department, according to Reuters. Should Obama proceed with Garcia’s nomination, it could be a politically significant one.

Garcia’s appointment would ensure that Hispanics still have a place in the president’s inner circle after Solis’ and Salazar’s resignations. Moreover, Colorado has become an increasingly important state to Democrats’ electoral success, and having an administration surrogate from there could be valuable in 2014 and 2016.

Tim Starks, Paul M. Krawzak, Geof Koss and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Iranian retaliatory attack on Israel flips script as Biden had pressed for changes in Gaza

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill