Trump picks face tough confirmation hearings
Senate rarely rejects Cabinet nominations
President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees are headed for brutal confirmation hearings, and his choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state is shaping up to be the most grueling, but history shows that the Senate rarely musters the nerve to reject Cabinet picks.
Only nine Cabinet nominees in U.S. history have been defeated in committee or Senate votes, although 12 others have been withdrawn in the face of strong opposition. The last time a nominee was defeated outright came in 1989, when former Sen. John Tower, President George H.W. Bush’s pick for defense secretary, went down in a party-line vote in a Democrat-majority Senate.
Nearly every one of Mr. Trump’s nominees has encountered objections from Senate Democrats, from accusations that his pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is anti-environment to charges his choice to head the Labor Department, fastfood titan Andrew F. Puzder, is anti-worker.
The expected nomination of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for secretary of energy met opposition from Democrats and liberal groups that noted he once proposed eliminating the Energy Department.
Mr. Tillerson encountered the stiffest opposition yet, including from several Republican senators who said they share Democrats’ concerns about his close business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the past, however, nominations were more likely to be derailed over personality than policy.
Mr. Tower, the only former senator to be denied confirmation in a vote by his colleagues, was rejected amid reports of past drinking problems and claims that it rendered him unfit for office.
Prior to Mr. Tower’s ill-fated nomination, historians have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower’s pick of Lewis L. Strauss for commerce secretary in 1959 to find another confirmation casualty. Mr. Strauss, who played a key role in formulating early U.S. nuclear weapon policy, was known for his prickly disposition, which proved his biggest liability and ultimately undermined his nomination.
In that case as well, a Democratic majority in the Senate denied the Republican president’s choice.
In recent years, it has been more common for a nomination to be withdrawn rather than suffer the humiliation of being voted down. Since 1996 six nomination have been withdrawn: three of Bill Clinton’s, two of George W. Bush’s and one of Mr. Obama’s.
Mr. Obama’s choice for health and human services secretary, former Sen. Tom Daschle, withdrew over questions about his tax returns and his work as a lobbyist, which appeared to contradict the president’s campaign pledge to bring change to Washington. Mr. Daschle’s nomination foundered despite fellow Senate Democrats being in the majority.
Senators revere their constitutional duty of “advice and consent” over nominations, but they also pride themselves on showing deference to presidents in filling their Cabinets. That explains the rarity of nominees
Republicans share Democrats’ concerns that ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s selection for secretary of state, is too close to Russian interests.