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Advise and Consent
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 5, 2001

Question: Do any of the Cabinet appointments made by President-elect Bush have any chance of getting rejected by the Senate? – Sekou Benson, Detroit, Mich.

Answer: It’s too soon to say, though my early guess is that they will all get through. In history there have been only nine rejections by the Senate of Cabinet nominees.

Some of what happens may depend on how negotiations fare between Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle over Senate "power sharing," in the wake of its unprecedented 50-50 makeup. If the negotiations go sour, it theoretically could affect the tone of the confirmation hearings, if not some votes.

Aside from that, there’s still the fact that advocacy groups from the left are planning an all-out assault against Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, a former Missouri state attorney general and governor who was defeated in his bid for reelection to the Senate in November, is a strong foe of abortion rights and gun control and one of the most conservative members of the last Congress. He also was a leader in the successful bid to deny Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White a seat on the federal bench in 1999; the Senate rejected White on a party-line 54-45 vote. Ashcroft said his opposition to White was based not on race – White is African American – but on some of his decisions in capital punishment cases, which conservatives called "pro-criminal." Groups who are organizing against Ashcroft have pointed out that Ashcroft was awarded an honorary degree from South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, and has been quoted as calling Confederate war heroes "patriots." An amalgam of civil rights and pro-choice groups, led by Jesse Jackson, is promising to pressure Democratic senators to vote against Ashcroft.

It will be interesting to see if the liberals can resurrect the coalition that defeated Robert Bork, President Reagan’s choice for a Supreme Court slot in 1987, and tried to topple President Bush’s pick of Clarence Thomas four years later. But there’s no question that given the fact that many of these people still question George W.’s legitimacy, it won’t be hard to fire them up. Less sure is how many Democratic senators go along with them. At this point, I could envision as many as 35 senators voting against Ashcroft’s confirmation. But it will be tough for Jackson and Co. to get more than that.

Some opposition has also been expressed against Gale Norton, Bush’s choice for Interior Secretary, and Linda Chavez, the pick for Labor, but I don’t see these or any other choices seriously endangered.

Question: Has there ever been a senator whose nomination for the Cabinet was rejected? – Steve Knudde, Providence, R.I.

Tower was the last Cabinet nominee to be defeated. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Answer: On March 9, 1989, the Senate rejected President Bush’s choice of former senator John Tower (R-Tex., 1961-85) to be his secretary of defense. It would be an understatement to say that Tower, who did not seek reelection in 1984, was not the most likable senator in the joint. He was often perceived as a bully who would rather knock some heads than charm fellow senators to win over their votes. He also was criticized for an alleged conflict of interest over his consulting for defense contractors after leaving the Senate. And he had the reputation of someone who had a fondness for women and alcohol.

At the same time, he was seen as the leading expert on defense issues, a veteran Pentagon hawk who had long been a likely choice to head up the department. But the beginning of the end for Tower came on Jan. 31, 1989. On that day, Paul Weyrich, a leading conservative activist, testified at his confirmation hearing that there were questions about Tower’s "moral character" and personal life that needed further investigation. This gave senators who disliked Tower a cover to oppose the nomination. But it also troubled more neutral senators, who expressed concern about whether somebody like Tower should serve in such a delicate position. The Armed Services Committee, which Tower once headed, voted 11-9 on a straight party-line tally to defeat the nomination. Republicans insisted on bringing the nomination to the floor of the full Senate, but it lost there too. In the 47-53 vote, every Democrat but three (Heflin of Ala., Dodd of Conn., and Bentsen of Texas) voted against him, while he was backed by every Republican except for Kassebaum of Kansas. It was the first rejection of a Cabinet choice by the Senate since the Eisenhower administration. The next day, President Bush picked a Wyoming congressman by the name of Dick Cheney as his new nominee for Defense.

Question: Where can I find the latest popular vote totals in the presidential election? The most recent I could find was December 1st and there were still more than a million absentee votes to be counted. – Virginia Holland, Anchorage, Alaska

Answer: The figures compiled by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, as of Dec. 20, are as complete as I’ve seen. Here are the top five finishers:

Al Gore (Democrat) 50,996,064 48.39%
George W. Bush (Republican) 50,456,167 47.88
Ralph Nader (Green) 2,864,810 2.72
Pat Buchanan (Reform) 448,750 0.43
Harry Browne (Libertarian) 386,024 0.37

The totals show Gore with a plurality of 539,897 votes. There had been much conjecture about whether the tight contest brought more voters to the polls. The total turnout was 105,380,929, or 51.2 percent of those eligible to vote, a figure that was up just 2.2 percentage points from 1996.

Question: Who would become president if Bush dies before Jan. 20? – Myles Mintz, Flushing, N.Y.

Answer: Dick Cheney. Section 3 of the Twenty Second Amendment states, "If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President-elect shall have died, the Vice President-elect shall become President."

Question: I was deeply angered by the hypocrisy shown by the Republicans during the recount battle in Florida. I heard somewhere that retiring Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) actually won his Senate seat back in 1988 by a hand recount. If this is true, it's pretty pathetic that Bush-clan "hack" James Baker so vigorously protested hand recounting. – Jason Moses, Austin, Tex.

Mack won his seat in '88 on absentee ballots, not hand recounts. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Answer: Without getting into who was being hypocritical during the recount in Florida, Mack actually won his Senate seat in ’88 via absentee ballots, rather than a hand recount. Although the three TV networks declared Democrat Buddy MacKay the winner on election night (based on exit polls), the absentees put Mack on top the next day. But there are some interesting and delicious echoes from that campaign. MacKay talked about discrepancies between network exit polls and the actual vote, and he demanded a hand recount in five counties he won, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Officials in Dade and Broward failed to act, and when a hand recount in ten Palm Beach precincts netted MacKay only three votes, the Democrat conceded the race – eight days after the election. There were no legal challenges to the result.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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