Crystal-balling the confirmation hearings ahead

By Max Cacas

We’re now just days away from the first of the Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Obama’s cabinet nominees. What can we look forward to? A pair of veteran Capitol Hill watchers offer some perspective and insight.

Steven Hess served on the White House staffs of both the Eisenhower and Nixon Administrations, and advised both Presidents Ford and Carter. Today, he’s at the Brookings Institution here in Washington, and believes that when it comes to the confirmation process, “Almost every administration has one person at least that the Senate, and a Senate committee focuses on. It’s almost written in the stars.”

On a recent edition of WFED’s The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, Hess recounted one instance where a seemingly promising candidate failed to pass muster in the United States Senate, even though the nominee was once himself a member of the “most exclusive club in the world.”


It was when (President) George H.W. Bush appointed John Tower (former Senator from Texas) to be Secretary of Defense, and he was turned down. It was the first time that an initial cabinet-level appointee had been turned down in history, and that was a matter of having the votes.

Hess says that along the way, the rules of the game changed, so that it was no longer sufficient for a nominee to have paid his or her taxes, and be the person that a sitting president wanted in the job. Now, they have to somehow find a way to be equally agreeable to all the members of the Senate, and their special interests and priorities.

For some additional perspective on the upcoming confirmation hearings, we turn to our colleague, Dave McConnell, the veteran Capitol Hill correspondent for our sister station, 103.5 FM, WTOP Radio, and the “dean” of congressional broadcast reporters. I asked Dave to first scope out a very recent nomination: Leon Panetta for CIA chief.

There’s some head-shaking up here, and some scratching of heads. Leon Panetta is highly regarded up here, especially among some Democrats. But his reputation has little to do with national intelligence. It’s more with the budget, with appropriations, with legislative activities in another era. Yet he is conceded as a great organization person. A person who can run things, who can organize things.

Much has been made of Mr. Obama nominating many officials who also saw service in the Clinton Administration, and Dave McConnell says watch out for one in particular:

The fact that someone’s worked for the Clinton Administration will not necessarily be a problem. I think, though, in the case of Eric Holder, who is the designee as Attorney General, his dealings with President Clinton in the last hours of the Clinton Administration and giving his opinions to pardon certain people, very controversial people, I think that could be a big problem for Holder. I think Republicans will zero in on that, and make life tough for him. Holder’s defenders say it’s really the President’s decision, he’s not that much involved, and he should not be taken to task.

Although not officially part of the Bill Clinton cabinet, New York Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, gained some notoriety on Capitol Hill for her failed efforts at spearheading health care reform on her husband’s behalf. Since becoming a Senator, she has built a generally good reputation for working across the aisle on a number of important initiatives. I asked McConnell how it will go for her as Secretary of State-designate.

The line up here is that she will have a tough and rigorous interrogation, especially by Republicans who will remind her of the failed health care plan. But she’ll clear. It’s unlikely that she’ll be turned down in (the Senate Foreign Relations) committee.

McConnell says one potential problem went away this past weekend when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson removed his name from the nomination to be Commerce Secretary because of an ongoing federal investigation.

Finally, I asked Dave McConnell to offer his thoughts on how the Obama transition team seems to be doing on the eve of the first confirmation hearings this week.

Well, so far so good, is the thinking about Obama. He seems to have planned exquisitely for this, he did everything he possibly could. Who would have known that his vacancy would have left an opportunity for (Illinois) Governor Blagojevich to engage in the controversial activity of “selling the office”, but that’s something he had to deal with.

McConnell says the thinking among his colleagues on Capitol Hill is that the President-elect “gets high marks for the way he’s carried on the transition.”

On the Web:

WTOP – Dave McConnell
Brookings Institution – Stephen Hess, Senior Fellow Emeritus,

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