Confirmation hearings for Barack Obama’s Cabinet picks kick into high gear this week, and the ride for most of them is going to be smooth.
Testimonial dramatics are more the province of Supreme Court nomination hearings – and five of the 15 Obama appointees are Senate alums, which means they’re likely to get even more deferential treatment than your average Cabinet nominee.
Still, every once in a while, a prospective secretary of something does enough to raise some senator’s hackles that the well-scripted process becomes high melodrama.
In 1959, Dwight Eisenhower’s pick for Commerce, Lewis Strauss, clashed so explosively with New Mexico Sen. Clinton Anderson – then the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy – that their spat helped turn Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent” into a bestseller and then a Hollywood film starring Henry Fonda.
Thirty years later, the nation watched the epic clash between Sen. Sam Nunn and former Sen. John Tower, whom President George H.W. Bush had tapped to be his secretary of defense. Tower’s membership in the club didn’t win him much leniency from Nunn, who excoriated him, or from the Senate, which ultimately rejected him.
Although other nominees – Zoe Baird, Tony Lake – have walked away rather than face defeat, Tower was the last Cabinet pick to be voted down.
None of Obama’s nominees seem likely to suffer such a fate, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some one-on-one, senator-on-nominee fireworks.
Here are five to watch:
Sen. Arlen Specter v. Eric Holder
The Spectrometer has been climbing over Obama’s pick as attorney general.
Specter has drawn on low moments from two recent presidencies to beat up on Holder. He’s noted – more than once – Holder’s role in former President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, and he’s compared Holder to Bush-era AG Alberto Gonzales. Specter said last week that the nation needs an attorney general with the stature and courage to say no instead of yes.
In addition to the Rich matter, Specter can be counted on to follow up on a few other issues he raised on the Senate floor last week. Among them: Holder’s involvement in former Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations that Al Gore was raising illegal campaign funds in 1996; the clemency Holder had supported for Puerto Rican militant group Armed Forces of National Liberation; and Holder’s involvement in the investigations of the 1993 Waco siege and nuclear spying by the Chinese.
Specter could be facing a tough 2010 primary battle for his Senate seat; showing his incisors now might be a smart tactical move.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein v. Leon Panetta
Don King might be moved to proclaim this battle the Vendetta of Panetta.
Miffed that she hadn’t been consulted before word of Obama’s CIA pick leaked out, Feinstein made her disapprobation known in a sharp press release questioning whether an Intel neophyte was right for the job. She softened her stance a few days later, after Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden called to apologize and following a 20-minute conversation she had with Panetta.
"I've known him for 20 years,” Feinstein said. “”I know him to be a man of credibility and a man of conscience and a man of talent, and I believe he will surround himself with top-notch staff from the intelligence community."
But there have been stories of strain between the two Californians over the last two decades, and it’s possible that some of that played into this. There’s also the matter of Feinstein’s recent outspoken independence: She was among the first of the Senate Democrats to suggest publicly that Roland Burris should be seated.
"I have reached a stage in my life where I'm going to speak out and I'm going to say what I think is right,” Feinstein said recently.
Panetta can probably expect to hear some of it.
Sen. Charles Grassley v. Tim Geithner
The Finance Committee’s hardest questions for Geithner may well come from one of its mellowest members. Grassley has been anything but mellow on the Wall Street rescue, and he scoffed at the Geithner-engineered Bear Sterns bailout back in March. “Corporate bigwigs shouldn’t be able to profit from a deal while employees, shareholders and creditors have to carry the burden of a company’s demise,” the senator said.
While other Republicans were quick to salute Obama’s pick for Treasury back in November, Grassley took a skeptic’s stance. “The Treasury secretary has enormous powers in ordinary times and even greater powers in these troubled times,” he said, "so the Finance Committee owes the American people all due care and diligence in considering this nomination.”
In addition to the bailout, Grassley has already stated that he intends to press Geithner on “tax policy, expanding America’s access to foreign markets, and bringing the country’s fiscal house in order.”
Sen. Jim Bunning v. Steven Chu
Here finds a classic jock-versus-nerd affair pitting Bunning, a former Major League pitcher, against Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning experimental physicist.
It’ll likely be a battle over coal when Bunning takes over the questioning during Chu’s Tuesday confirmation hearing. Chu referred to coal as “my worst nightmare” during a speech in early last year, which surely puts a chill down the spine of Bunning, who introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Act in 2006 and reintroduced it in 2007.
“Bunning was known in the bigs for having an excellent curve ball, a confusing delivery and a sneaky fastball,” says Chris Tucker, spokesman for the conservative Institute for Energy Research. “But my suspicion is he’ll leave the junk at home that day and just ask Mr. Chu directly whether the thought of 18,000 Kentuckians mining coal for a living keeps him awake at night.””
Sen. John Kerry v. Hillary Clinton
While unlikely to be acrimonious, this exchange – tinged with the awkwardness most familiar to the high school prom court – is on the list for reasons of pure spectacle.
To wit: Kerry wanted to be president. Then Clinton wanted to be president. Then Kerry wanted Obama to be president. Then Obama became president. Then Kerry wanted to be secretary of state. But Obama wanted Clinton to be secretary of state. This all sets the stage for Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, where the back-and-forth will be finely parsed for any evidence of recriminations.
Or maybe Kerry will eliminate the need for such parsing by asking, “Why you and not me?”