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Hagel, Brennan, and history: How often does Senate reject cabinet nominees?

The Senate has only rejected two presidential cabinet picks since World War II – though six others have withdrawn their names, and the process is becoming more contentious.

By Staff writer / January 7, 2013

Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska speaks during an appearance at Bellevue University in Nebraska in this February 2007 file photo. President Obama will nominate Hagel as his next Defense secretary, a senior administration official said Sunday.

Nati Harnik/AP/File

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How often does the US Senate reject presidential cabinet nominations? That question comes up because President Obama on Monday announced two somewhat controversial picks for top executive-branch posts.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, a maverick former GOP senator from Nebraska, will face tough questions over his positions on Israel and Iran during confirmation proceedings. Mr. Obama’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, current counterterrorism adviser and former CIA official John Brennan, will be grilled by some senators over the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques during his tenure.

It’s certainly possible that one or both of these nominations could stall on Capitol Hill. Mr. Hagel, in particular, looks headed for a tough fight. But both nominees can take some comfort in historical numbers. Traditionally, the Senate gives presidents more leeway on executive-branch appointments than it does on Supreme Court picks, on the theory that they are not lifetime appointments and that the president needs to work with people he can trust. Senators block cabinet nominees about 2 percent of the time.

Since World War II, the Senate has actually voted down only two such picks, according to the Senate Historical Office.

The first of these was President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 choice to lead the Department of Commerce, Lewis Strauss. A former admiral, Strauss had accumulated many enemies as the outspoken head of the Atomic Energy Commission. His confirmation hearing did not go well, as he gave what some senators considered evasive answers while demanding to cross-examine hostile witnesses. In addition, Democrats had made big gains in both House and Senate in the 1958 mid-term elections, and held a 64-to-34 Senate majority.

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