Presidents Normally Get Way on Nominations

Beyond the sound and fury of the Senate fight over U.N. ambassador-nominee John R. Bolton (search) is the reality that presidents typically get their man — or woman — and President Bush boasts one of the better records on high-level appointments.

The stunning turn of events in the Bolton case — the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (search) postponed a widely expected affirmative vote on the nomination to investigate new charges of abusive personal behavior and misuse of government power — highlights the history of the venerable advice and consent that the Senate gives presidential appointments.

Senators traditionally have saved their fights for judicial nominees, particularly Supreme Court choices, and let presidents have their picks for the Cabinet and other senior executive branch jobs.

"These are relatively rare events for the Senate to scrutinize and not give the president deference for appointments," said Sarah Binder, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University (search).

Few nominations have faltered over whether the candidate is a bully, and some point out that Congress itself has more than its share of hard-driving bosses.

"That's a standard a lot of senators might not be able to pass," said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College (search) who, paraphrasing the line from the movie "Apocalypse Now," said denying a nomination over boorish behavior is like "handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500."

Since 1789, presidents have made hundreds of Cabinet appointments, and the Senate failed to confirm just 15 — nine rejections, four withdrawals, two died in committee, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The last failed Cabinet nominee is one Bush would remember — his father's choice of former Texas Sen. John G. Tower (search) to be defense secretary.

In January 1989, Tower seemed headed to confirmation despite allegations of a drinking problem and womanizing. Then conservative activist Paul Weyrich testified about Tower's personal behavior and the Senate Armed Services Committee rushed into closed session, stalling the nomination.

Amid the delay, the committee received fresh allegations about Tower, giving new life to the opposition. The committee eventually gave the nomination an unfavorable recommendation, on an 11-9 vote, as partisan rancor rose.

The Democratic-controlled Senate had the final say, rejecting the Republican president's pick of Tower, 53-47, on March 9.

Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University (search), sees similarities between the Bolton nomination and the Tower fight.

"Anybody who has an overbearing boss, tyrannical, hopes there's a day of reckoning," said Baker, who argued that the problems arise when there is a significant postponement in the vote, giving "time for people who might have been tempted to come forward."

Said Pitney: "It's payback time for anyone he's mistreated. And it sounds like it could be a very long list."

Bush offered a strong defense of Bolton on Thursday, calling him "the right man at the right time for this important assignment" and urging the Senate to confirm him. Like his father with Tower, he is bound to see the nomination through to the end.

But it was a Republican, Sen. George Voinovich (search) of Ohio, whose reservations about Bolton prompted the committee to delay the vote. William Binning, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, said once Voinovich makes up his mind, the White House should forget about trying to change it.

"He's a bulldog, he doesn't yield," Binning said.

Said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., of Voinovich: "He's independent. He calls them as he sees them."

In the face of strong opposition, many a nominee has either jumped or been quietly pushed by the White House before a vote. Some realized their problems would surely scuttle their selection and abandoned the fight before the gavel sounded on their confirmation hearing.

Two of Bush's picks — Linda Chavez for Labor secretary in 2001 and Bernard Kerik for Homeland Security in 2004 — withdrew their names due to potential problems involving hired help.

Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, had picks for attorney general (Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood) falter over nanny problems and his choice to head the Justice Department's civil rights division (Lani Guinier) undone by her legal writings on racial issues and strong Republican opposition.

William Weld, a liberal Republican and Clinton's pick to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico, couldn't get past the determined effort of former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the conservative chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.