Confirmation hearings foreshadow future flash points between Obama, Congress

Most of the president-elect’s picks seem poised for easy votes – with a few exceptions.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Justice nominee: Eric Holder, nominated to be the next US attorney general, came before the Senate Thursday for his confirmation hearing.

Since George Washington’s day, the Senate has confirmed about 95 percent of presidential cabinet nominees. If hearings this week are any indication, President-elect Obama can expect at least that level of success.

Two, though, face tough questions over their past records. Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, is likely to be grilled next week about $35,000 in tax liabilities and about a failure to file proper immigration forms for three housekeepers, including one whose US work authorization had expired.

Eric Holder, Mr. Obama’s pick for US attorney general, faced criticism Thursday over his role in controversial Clinton-era pardons.

A third nominee, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, never made it to the Senate confirmation process, withdrawing from consideration because a federal grand jury had launched a corruption investigation into his dealings with a California-based company.

Obama’s other cabinet picks appear headed to easy confirmation votes.

Unlike positions on the federal bench – which have become the most bitterly contested nominations the US Senate considers – Cabinet seats are not lifetime appointments and, typically, are not subject to partisan wrangling.

“Senators feel presidents have a right to the advice they want, so tend to confirm them, especially if the president’s party is in the majority,” says Donald Ritchie, associate historian in the US Senate Historical Office. But flash points in a confirmation hearing can signal issues that may surface later in relations between Congress and the incoming administration.

For Republicans, the overriding concern in confirmation hearings so far is whether the Obama administration will commit to working with them to develop legislation. They also want assurances that the administration will be as responsive to their questions and requests for information as to those from majority Democrats. For GOP senators, who are within one or two votes of losing their ability to block bills they don’t like (depending on the outcome of the disputed Minnesota election), that concern is more than academic.

Republicans’ sharpest questions for former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, picked to run the Department of Health and Human Services, were about the level of openness he would have in working with their minority party. With healthcare reform a top priority of the next administration, Republicans want assurances that Democrats will work for a 70-, 80-, or 90-vote solution, not just a bare minority.

“In the interest of building bipartisan support, will you discourage members from using the budget reconciliation process [which bans the right to filibuster]?” asked Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

For Rep. Hilda Solis (D) of California, nominated to head the Department of Labor, a flash point came over her earlier vote in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill opposed by business that would make it easier for labor unions to organize. It will come up again in the new Congress. Republicans criticized her vote but did not claim it as a reason to block the nomination.

Handlers advising cabinet nominees on the confirmation process dispense this standard bit of advice: Let the senator do most of the talking. In her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton did one better: She consistently cited members of the Senate Foreign Relations panel in her own responses.

She also repeatedly distanced the Obama team from the go-it-alone stance associated with President Bush. “If I am confirmed, the State Department will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-thinking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world,” she said.

Mr. Holder’s confirmation has been the toughest to date. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary panel pressed him Thursday on issues ranging from terrorist surveillance to his role in President Clinton’s eleventh-hour 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

“I take what I did seriously and have expressed regret for what I did consistently,” Holder told Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s top Republican.

Disputes over nominations to the federal bench nearly ground the Senate to a halt early in Mr. Bush’s tenure. When Democrats took over the Senate in 2007, they pushed hard for answers about possible political motivations for the firings of seven US attorney generals in 2006.

“Under my stewardship, the Department of Justice will serve justice, not the fleeting interest of any political party,” Holder told the panel. “No one is above the law, but we don’t want to criminalize policy differences that might exist [between outgoing and incoming administrations].”

Confirmation hearings for Mr. Geither, a key player in the Treasury Department’s Wall Street bailout, is slated for next week.

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