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The Senate has only rejected two presidential cabinet picks since World War II – though six others have withdrawn their names, and the process is becoming more contentious.

Nati Harnik/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

“Appearing to question the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, the imperious Strauss personified the worst elements of executive-branch domination at precisely the time that the Senate sought to cast off such control and had acquired the Democratic majorities to do so,” writes the Senate Historical Office.

The second Senate nomination-vote loser was Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, who was nominated as secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. A recognized defense expert and one of the Senate’s own, Senator Tower at first seemed a safe choice. But allegations of alcohol abuse, plus questions about his role as a consultant to defense contractors, sank his bid following a contentious debate.

“The rejection of Tower’s nomination was surprising because the Senate allows presidents great latitude in selecting top-level members of their administrations,” writes James King, chairman of the University of Wyoming political science department, in a study of the Senate nomination process.

Of course, it’s more common for nominees to withdraw their names from consideration than it is for them to go down in flaming defeat on the Senate floor. Since 1993, six cabinet nominees have faced reality and pulled out rather than suffer a Senate rejection.

Zoe Baird ended her bid to serve as President Clinton’s attorney general in 1993 due to controversy over her hiring of illegal immigrants to serve as a chauffeur and nanny to her children. Linda Chavez was picked by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve as Labor Secretary, but withdrew after reports that she had also paid an illegal immigrant to perform household chores. Former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services due to charges of conflict of interest and tax evasion.

Both Hagel and Mr. Brennan are probably well aware that, given the contentious state of modern US politics, even winning cabinet nominees now suffer bruises along the way. Whereas the Senate once generally opposed nominees only for nonpolicy reasons, now nomination hearings are yet another forum in which to argue over matters of state.

“The appointments process has become a policy battleground in recent times. Senators may oppose a candidate because they disagree with the policy preferences of the candidate,” writes Wyoming’s Dr. King.

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