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20 April 2024

Obama Cabinet headed toward quick Senate approval

US President-elect Barack Obama (GETTY IMAGES)

By Reuters

US President-elect Barack Obama's proposed Cabinet of top advisers seems headed toward swift US Senate approval, with former presidential rival Hillary Clinton appearing a shoo-in for secretary of state.

Following a tradition in the treatment of incoming presidents, Obama's fellow Democrats along with Republicans have made Senate confirmation of his Cabinet a top priority.

Most of Obama's picks may be approved within days of the Illinois Democrat being sworn in as the 44th president at noon on Tuesday. A few are expected to be confirmed within hours of the inauguration.

Twelve of President Ronald Reagan's 14 Cabinet members were confirmed within two days of his first inauguration in 1981, while 13 of President Bill Clinton's 15 Cabinet members were confirmed within one day.

President George W Bush's Cabinet took longer to seat, with seven winning confirmation the first day and the rest approved within 11 days, according to Senate Democrats.

Members of both parties agree Obama's proposed department heads need to be in place to help him hit the ground running as he confronts two wars, a deepening recession, an explosive Middle East and an estimated 46 million Americans without healthcare.

Hillary Clinton, a senator from New York since 2001 and wife of former President Bill Clinton, may be the first of Obama's nominees to be confirmed, likely a few hours after he takes office. Clinton, who was Obama's chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, had her nomination sent to the full Senate by a 16-1 vote of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Others who may be confirmed quickly include Nobel physics laureate Steven Chu as energy secretary, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary and Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado as interior secretary.

None of Obama's nominees to his 15-member Cabinet is expected to be rejected by the Democratic-led Senate.

But New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson withdrew as commerce secretary-designate to deal with a corruption probe, and Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner has faced embarrassing questions about $34,000 in unpaid taxes.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Geithner, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been postponed until the day after Obama takes office.

"He'll be chastened and embarrassed – as he should be – but he'll likely be confirmed," said a senior Republican aide.

Many argue Geithner's expertise is vital to deal with the recession. But as another Republican said: "Let's see how he does at his hearing. Less people have gone down for less."

It has not been all smooth sailing for the emerging administration of the first African-American to win the US presidency and his efforts to create a diverse Cabinet.


Republicans initially made Attorney General-designate Eric Holder the top and perhaps only target for possible rejection. But the former deputy US attorney general in the Clinton administration drew rave reviews at his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Holder also extinguished much of the Republican fire by simply admitting he erred in backing the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

"I will be a better attorney general, having the Marc Rich experience," Holder said.

Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, had a meeting with Holder on Friday and said afterward he intended to support him and urged others to do so as well.

Lawmakers have traditionally given presidents wide latitude in picking who they want. About 95 per cent of Cabinet nominees have been confirmed since America's first president, George Washington, according to the Senate historian's office.

Among nominees who did not take office were Clinton's first two picks for attorney general, who both withdrew after it was disclosed they had employed illegal immigrants as household help. President George HW Bush's first choice for defence secretary, former Texas Senator John Tower, was narrowly voted down by the Senate amid allegations about conflicts of interest and his personal conduct.

While confirmation hearings are often held before a president takes office, nominees cannot be confirmed until after the inauguration.

Many of the hearings for Obama's picks have lasted only a couple of hours, with Republicans and Democrats spending nearly as much time praising them as questioning them.

Still, some have frustrated lawmakers.

Democratic US Republican Hilda Solis of California, Obama's choice to head the Labor Department, declined to discuss a number of issues, including "card-check" legislation that would make it easier for unions to organise workers.

Although a co-sponsor of the measure that is opposed by business, Solis told dubious lawmakers she had not yet discussed the matter with Obama.

Regardless, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said he would back her.