Senate committee chairmen expect to begin confirmation hearings for Barack Obama's Cabinet picks shortly after Congress returns to work next week, with only one - Attorney General nominee Eric Holder - expected to face any significant opposition from Republicans.
Holder's confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15, five days before Obama takes the oath. Aides to Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee and sources close to Holder say they're braced for a tough fight over his role in the Elian Gonzalez controversy, his relationship with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and most of all in his role in the pardoning former President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich.
Republicans are pressing Holder for records on those issues and others.
"The Judiciary Committee is reviewing materials provided by the nominee, correspondence from outside groups, materials from the committee archive, and awaiting other documents requested by committee members," a Republican spokesman for the Judiciary Committee told Politico Wednesday.
But it's not clear that Republicans will actually fight Holder's confirmation - and his is about the rockiest road facing any of Obama's Cabinet picks.
The Senate hasn't rejected a Cabinet nominee outright since 1989, when it voted down John Tower, President George H.W. Bush's pick as Defense secretary. Before that, it hadn't rejected a Cabinet pick since 1959. With Democrats in control in the Senate - and Republicans looking to pick their battles carefully - don't expect a repeat in 2009.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama's pick for Commerce, faces scrutiny over involvement in a San Diego-based software company that was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but he seems unlikely to face a difficult hearing.
"Republicans are aware of the issue, but we're being cooperative with the majority," said one GOP aide who is involved with the planning for Richardson's hearing. "It's possible that it might come up, but it's not going to be a focus of the hearings."
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee should draw some C-SPAN viewers, but committee aides said it's unlikely that Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican, will try to rattle the former First Lady.
"I'm only surmising that it's going to be fairly swift," Andy Fisher, a Lugar spokesman, said of Clinton's hearing. "As is usually the case, the Senate usually confirms its own members fairly quickly."
But Cabinet confirmations can be difficult to predict, and a smooth-sailing nomination in December can blow up in January. Zoe Baird, Clinton's 1992 pick as attorney general, seemed to be cruising toward confirmation until word that she had hired illegal aliens as household help leaked out in mid-January. Baird ultimately withdrew herself from contention.
Leaders are set to gavel in the 111th Congress on Jan. 6, and hearings will likely begin soon thereafter on Obama's nominees for Labor and Health and Human Services. Hearings for the prospective heads of the departments of Interior, Veterans Affairs, and Energy are to take place a week later. Other hearings will begin as soon as the FBI completes its background checks on nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is giving committee chairmen wide latitude in scheduling the hearings, but he's also making it known that he wants the hearings started - and finished - sooner rather than later.
But Reid's attempt to move quickly hasn't sat well with the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). In early December, Specter took to the Senate floor in an effort to put the brakes on the Holder hearing, then scheduled for Jan. 8.
"There are questions that need to be addressed," Specter said, noting the Rich pardon. "We're looking at a very, very serious matter.
How the 78-year-old Specter conducts himself during the hearings could prove crucial.
On the one hand, Specter, who is facing the prospect of a primary challenge from the right in his 2010 re-election bid, wants to prove to the Pennsylvania GOP faithful that he can play ball.
On the other hand, he may want to tread lightly in standing up to popular president-elect and in challenging a man who would be the nation's first African-American attorney general.
But for now, Republicans are leaving no stone unturned. Earlier this month, after Holder submitted a questionnaire to the Judiciary Committee, Specter sent the nominee a letter asking why he had not completed several questions. GOP aides on the committee, meanwhile, have put in several requests to the Department of Justice for Holder's records. Aides are also pressing the Clinton's presidential library for its Holder paperwork.
Republicans are also expected to look into Holder's relationship with Blagojevich, the Illinois governor facing criminal charges related Obama's Senate vacancy. In 2004, Blagojevich held a news conference with Holder to announce Holder's appointment as a special investigator to the Illinois Gaming Board. The appointment never panned out, but Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a Judiciary Committee member, is said to be interested in pressing Holder on why he did not report the press conference in a written questionnaire submitted to the Judiciary Committee.