President Barack Obama faces a tough nomination process for his proposed defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. But if the past is any indicator, a Senate rejection would be historic in many ways.
Hagel faces vocal opposition from senators from both political parties. However, it’s rare for the Senate to actually reject a cabinet nominee in a public vote—the last such act took place in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
More likely, the Obama administration would withdraw Hagel’s nomination before a vote, if the math proved problematic.
The Senate’s official website has a detailed analysis of the nomination and approval process, which wasn’t spelled out in the Constitution, but follows precedents set by the first president, George Washington.
The Constitution, in Article II, Section 2, says that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for.”
The Founding Fathers worked out most of the process in the 1st Congress, as President Washington nominated Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Henry Knox to his first cabinet, and the Senate approved the nominations by a simple majority vote.
Early nominations dramas were more about Supreme Court candidates, but in later years, fights over cabinet nominees were dramatic, even if they were rare.
The first high-profile cabinet rejection by the Senate was in 1834, when President Andrew Jackson lost a fight to get Attorney General Roger Taney named as treasury secretary, in the bitter fight over the Second Bank of the United States.
The Senate rejected Taney’s nomination by a 18-28 vote, but a determined Jackson was able to get Taney appointed as the Supreme Court’s chief justice in 1835 when his Democratic party had a slim Senate majority.
The next nomination fight over the cabinet involved a senator who had played a key role in Taney’s rejection: John Tyler of Virginia.
By 1843, Tyler had become president, after William Henry Harrison died, and he was openly feuding with his own Whig party. On March 3, the Senate rejected Tyler’s nomination of Caleb Cushing’s as treasury secretary three times on the same day. Three other Tyler nominees were later rejected by the Senate, giving him a record six cabinet rejections.
A third historic cabinet rejection came in the troubled administration of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson’s attorney general, Henry Stanbery, resigned his position to defend Johnson at the president’s Senate trial after his impeachment.
Johnson survived the trial, and he nominated Stanbery to resume his job as attorney general in 1868. The Senate promptly rejected Stanbery’s nomination.
Since then, only three cabinet nominations have been rejected by a vote in the Senate. In comparison, six nominations have been withdrawn before a vote, by the president, since 1993.
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In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated Admiral Lewis Strauss as commerce secretary. The Democrats controlled more than 60 Senate seats and Strauss lost in a contentious nomination process by just four votes.
The fight between the Senate and its former member, John Tower, in 1989 was historic in many ways. Tower had headed the Senate Armed Services Committee until he retired in 1985. President Bush had nominated Tower as defense secretary.
The public debate over Tower’s nomination included a lot of mudslinging, and Tower lost the vote along party lines in the Democrat-controlled Senate. He was the only former Senate member rejected for a cabinet position by the Senate in its history. Dick Cheney was later approved in Tower’s place.
In the current case of Hagel, a former Republican senator, the Democrats have about 55 votes in the Senate, including independents that caucus with them.
But Hagel has bipartisan critics because of his past comments about Israel and his opinions on the war in Iraq.
It’s unlikely Hagel’s nomination would make it to a vote if his candidacy is in trouble, but if Hagel were to lose, it would be a double rarity: a former senator rejected by a Senate controlled by the president’s party.