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Few Tough Challenges at Confirmation Hearings

Few of President Bush's (search) nominees for Cabinet posts in his second term are likely to face much criticism from the Senate, but that doesn't mean they all will skate through the hearing process.

Alberto Gonzales (search), the president's White House counsel, is expected to have the hardest time. He goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for a confirmation hearing for the open spot as attorney general. The hearing could last one to two days and is expected to feature some fireworks over several memos Gonzales wrote about the detention and prosecution of terror suspects.

In those memos, which have now been rejected by the White House, Gonzales advised President Bush that he could exempt Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from Geneva Convention (search) protections. Critics like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said the memos damaged America's reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners.

"Many of the military felt that this opened the door for things that are going to scar us, scar the U.S. for years and years to come," Leahy said.

But lawmakers don't expect Gonzales' nomination to be shut down by the Senate, which now has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one Democrat-leaning independent. That's not enough GOP support for controversial candidates to overcome a filibuster, but Gonzales is not expected to be caught in such a morass. A vote on the nomination could come as early as Jan. 20, a congressional source told FOXNews.com.

For many, Gonzales embodies the American dream. He's one of eight kids from Mexican immigrant parents, he graduated from Harvard Law School, served on the Texas Supreme Court and is now one of the most powerful lawyers in the land.

He would be the nation's first Latino attorney general. A vote on his nomination could come as early as next week. But even if he does get the job, Gonzales may not be able to go further. For instance, he's been mentioned as a potential Bush pick should a Supreme Court justice retire during the president's second term.

Both supporters and opponents acknowledge that nomination would become a sticking point for the counselor.

"This is all part of a process to bloody up this honorable nominee, somebody who will be confirmed, to do political damage to the president or perhaps a subsequent confirmation hearing," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of Gonzales' backers.

Rice to Face Scrutiny

Another nominee expected to face considerable scrutiny is National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search). Later this month, Rice will face two days of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in what is expected to be a very contentious set of hearings.

If confirmed, Rice will have the responsibility of garnering more support for the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq, particularly as the country tries to form a government after the Jan. 30 election. Rice will also be the United States' top negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the Palestinians pick a new leader who will be required to negotiate a statehood deal.

Rice is a close friend and valued adviser to the president and is known for her loyalty to the administration and for running a tight-lipped ship. As national security adviser, she has been instrumental in developing U.S. policy toward Iraq, and that is where she is expected to face trouble with some senators.

Her original confirmation hearing was delayed from December to the end of January at the request of the White House, but Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said he did not expect her confirmation to be a problem.

Lugar did say that as a result of her taking the post, changes may or may not come in the way the United States conducts foreign policy.

"Well, I don't see that for the moment, but, you know, this is an evolving situation," he said. "The administration is going to have to think through Iran, a lot of thinking about Iraq and certainly Ukraine and Russia."

A former provost of Stanford University, Rice is an expert on the former Soviet Union and served as the top security adviser on that nation to President George H.W. Bush. After the Sept. 11 attacks, administration critics were quick to pounce on her Cold War background, charging that she did not have the goods to take on Islamic extremism, but now her experience may fit a different challenge — the backsliding between U.S. and Russian relations.

"My understanding is she does see Russia through those Cold War lenses," said Andrew Jack, Moscow bureau chief at The Financial Times and author of "Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy?"

"That means there's an instinctively more confrontational approach, an older approach to looking at relations," Jack told FOXNews.com.

Mostly Clear Sailing Ahead

Luckily for Bush, not all his Cabinet choices are not expected to face such scrutiny as Rice and Gonzales. The first confirmation hearing, for Carlos M. Gutierrez (search), to be secretary of commerce, is scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Gutierrez, the CEO of Kellogg, Inc., was the surprise choice to replace retiring Secretary Donald Evans. Gutierrez, a Hispanic of Cuban ancestry, will be in charge of making U.S. companies more competitive abroad. His record at Kellogg, which includes a slim trail of political donations as well as a nearly clean slate on major environmental or worker safety issues, makes him an attractive choice for the post.

"He is the most international person ever to be commerce secretary," Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, now head of the National Association of Manufacturers (search), said after Gutierrez's nomination was announced. "He really knows what is happening in markets around the world."

Other candidates for Cabinet posts are not likely to face harrowing confirmation hearings. The nominees are:

Samuel W. Bodman (search), deputy secretary of the treasury, to be secretary of energy, replacing retiring Secretary Spencer Abraham. Bodman's major challenge will be to get Congress to enact energy legislation. He will also be responsible for initiating upgrades to the nation's energy grid, untangling both legal and budget problems that have threatened the building of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste repository in Nevada, and assuming responsibility for several nuclear weapons labs.

Mike Johanns (search), Nebraska governor, to be secretary of agriculture, replacing retiring Secretary Ann Veneman. Johanns will continue the work of promoting school nutrition programs, helping prevent the spread of mad cow disease (search), and working to secure the nation's food supply against bioterrorism threats.

Michael O. Leavitt (search), Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to be secretary of Health and Human Services, replacing retiring Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. The HHS secretary oversees Medicare and Medicaid, the mammoth government health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Indian Health Service. Leavitt will help the administration implement its new Medicare prescription drug benefit program, work to help fund faith-based groups, pursue sound medical research and protect the country against any sort of biological or other attack.

Jim Nicholson (search), current U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, to be secretary of Veterans Affairs to replace retiring Secretary Anthony Principi. A former Republican National Committee chairman as well as decorated Army veteran, Nicholson will oversee 230,000 employees responsible for ensuring that the nation's veterans receive proper health care and other benefits.

Margaret Spellings (search), Bush's domestic policy adviser, to be secretary of education, replacing retiring Secretary Rod Paige. She will be responsible for implementing the No Child Left Behind rules for primary and secondary schools and is in fact responsible for building the model in Texas on which the federal law was molded. Spellings will also deal with the teachers unions — the largest of which has a cold relationship with the administration — school vouchers, and expanding college opportunities for students.

The president still needs to find a replacement for retiring Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Ridge said he would leave on Feb. 1 or whenever a successor is confirmed, whichever comes first. Bush had named former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik for the post, but a series of embarrassing rumors as well as a problem over the immigration status of his nanny forced Kerik to withdraw from consideration.

The president also has to replace certain key posts, including his chief economic adviser and his ambassador to the United Nations. Another challenge for the president and the 109th Congress will be appointing judges to the federal bench. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he was going to try to keep things from getting ugly.

"It is in my dreams and hopes and my conviction that we can do a much better job here in D.C. uniting around the common causes," Frist said.

FOX News' Carl Cameron, Caroline Shively, Liza Porteus and Jane Roh contributed to this report.