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Jan 27, 2005 12:17 am

Rice and Gonzales

Two interesting--and historically significant--votes in the Senate today. Thirteen Dems voted against the confirmation of Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State--the highest number ever to vote against a nominee for the position during the last 100 years.* And in a straight party-line vote, the Judiciary Committee forwarded Alberto Gonzales' name to the Senate by a 10-8 margin. While Judiciary's Dems are more liberal than the party as a whole, the tally suggests that perhaps 35-40 senators will vote against Gonzalez in the final tally.

Along with Defense and Treasury, State and the AG round out the big four of cabinet offices. To have nominees to both positions attract such strong opposition, simultaneously, is unprecedented.

What criteria is the Senate supposed to use in evaluating cabinet nominees? Article II, Section 2, which addresses the issue, includes cabinet officials with judges and treaties in the"advice and consent" clause, but, in practice, the Senate has tended to give Presidents greater leeway regarding cabinet officials than on judicial appointments or treaties, which are, after all, of a more permanent nature.

The Rice and Gonzales appointments are somewhat unusual in that both have been implicated in what appear to be policy errors--assuming that WMDs existed in Iraq, saying it was OK to not follow the Geneva Convention for the Gitmo prisoners--during the administration's first term. Moreover, as Andrew Sullivan has argued most persuasively, Gonzales' nomination almost certainly will have negative international ramifications, in that it will be interpreted as US confirmation of approving torture. In this respect, the closest historical comparison is Richard Nixon's decision to elevate Henry Kissinger to be secretary of state in 1973; Kissinger attracted seven negative votes, despite intense opposition in the Senate to many of the foreign policy decisions with which Kissinger was associated. On the other hand, Kissinger was perceived as having a more flexible intellect than Rice has demonstrated.

Do these tallies, however, suggest that we'll see a more robust Congress over the next couple of years? I doubt it. Perhaps the most troubling comment of the debate came from John McCain, hardly a Bush lackey. The Arizona senator questioned the need for a debate on Rice, since she was certain of confirmation."So I wonder why we are starting this new Congress with a protracted debate about a foregone conclusion. I can only conclude that we are doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness over the outcome of the election." Quite possibly so--but the partisanship in both of these votes is on both sides, since it would be hard to make a case that either Rice or Gonzales did particularly good jobs in the positions that they previously occupied.

The theory that the Senate--of all bodies--should bypass debate on issues that enjoy overwhelming support suggests how different Congress has become in recent years, with less and less support in either body, and especially the Senate, for defending the institutional prerogatives that received strong backing (depending on the issue, variously from right and left in the Senate) during the 1960s and 1970s.

*-In the 19th century, Henry Clay attracted more votes against his confirmation (and, as Richard Henry Morgan points out in comments), a much higher percentage of senators voted against Clay. The position of Secretary of State, however, was much different at the time--as much a foreign policy position as a stepping stone to the presidency.

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Julie A Hofmann - 1/28/2005

Probably true, but I have to say I'm glad at least one senator had the backbone to question Rice's playing fast and loose with the truth and her inability to take responsibility for anything that's gone wrong on her watch. If they confirm Gonzales, it will be one of the most morally bankrupt actions on either side of the aisle in a long while.

Lloyd Kilford - 1/27/2005

I think that many Democrats may have done some back-of-an-envelope calculations and thought that if they couldn't get the votes to reject Rice, then there was no sense in trying to vote her down and annoying the Republican leadership. They will have to work together on non-party-line issues, and maybe they can't be bothered to make enemies this early in the session.

And I don't think that this was an issue which they could muster 41 votes to filibuster, unless they wanted a lot of abuse for being the "do-nothing Democrats".

(As a Brit, I would be amazed at the political skill of anyone who persuaded about 2/3 of the opposition party to vote for the Prime Minister's candidate, but it isn't the same thing at all).

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

I think if the Repubs tried that sort of thing with Rice, the Dems would come out of the woodwork to beat her up at the confirmation hearings, and there might be close to a straight party-line vote (the campaign implications being obvious) in the Senate.

Speaking of the Ford confirmation, the deputy lead counsel for the House Judicial Committee hearing the impeachment proceedings, reported that several House leaders asked Rodino to stall confirmation of Ford until they could get rid of Nixon, thereby putting Carl Albert in the White House. When this was floated to Albert, he threw the congresswoman out of his office. BTW, one of those floating the plan to Rodino was one of the most vociferous in proclaiming the Clinton impeachment a coup d'etat. Funny how that goes.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

I woud venture that Kissinger was also seen as a damping effect on Nixon's worst instincts, while Rice is viewed in the opposite way.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/27/2005

She has done some serious stumping for her president's policies, though, particularly during the campaign. And being technically from outside the professional political class is a rhetorical identity that seems to really resonate, though I vacillate on whether I think that's a good thing.

The "instant VP" formula worked as recently as Ford, which is probably the model they're (that is, Republicans who think this is a good idea) thinking of. Would that Bush went the way of Nixon, or Cheney of Agnew.....

Ralph E. Luker - 1/27/2005

It is interesting that a poll of Righty bloggers found Rice to be far and away the first choice for the Republican nomination in 2008. It is very rare, however, for a cabinet member to win a nomination for the presidency. I think that hasn't happened since Herbert Hoover. Rice has _no_ experience in campaigning for elective office. That is commonly considered a handicap.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/27/2005

Reminds me of a Tom Clancy novel....

I'm not saying you're wrong, but I can't think of another example, except for G.W. Bush of someone who came up through the intelligence/security ranks. Unless you go back to Gen. Eisenhower, I guess.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/27/2005

I don't know why Kissinger was confirned so easily, but I will posit some thoughts.

1. What K.C. said, the sense that he was flexible.

2. Opening relations with China and Detente with the Soviets.

3. A negative of sorts, the US was leaving Vietnam. That raised the importance of the China and Soviet issues.
4. Nixon's popularity. If I remember correctly, Kissinger was confirmed well before the Watergate hearings. It's hard to remember just how powerful he was at his height.

Christy Jo Snider - 1/27/2005

I've heard some pundits speculating that Rice is being groomed for a run at the presidency in 2008. How else could a woman get the nominiation without first having demonstrated strength in the areas of foreign policy and national security. Rice will have served 4 years as national security advisor, at least a few years a secretary of state, and I wouldn't be surprised that if Cheney steps down due to health reasons, Rice steps in as vice president.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/27/2005

The interesting question for me is why the opposition to Rice was so much more substantial than the opposition to Kissinger. The Senate in the 1970s was far more liberal--and far more confrontational--than the Senate today, and yet Rice attracted almost twice as many negative votes.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/26/2005

I should have said "against confirmation".

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/26/2005

AP is reporting, citing the Senate historian, that Clay was confirmed by a vote of 27 to 14, while Rice had 13 votes against nomination (and 85 for). If so, on a percentage basis, 31.45% of the Senate votes were against Clay, with 13.27% of the Senate votes against Rice. I've tried to figure out the percentages of negative votes for previous Secretaries of State, but have yet to track down a data base with all the names and numbers.

I don't think have a problem with most Gitmo prisoners not treated as POWs under the Geneva Convention -- providing they did have a tribunal hearing, as required. If they didn't wear apparel that at a distance marked them as enemy combatants, then they aren't entitled to POW status under the Convention, once the facts are determined by a tribunal. That is distinct from endorsing torture.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/26/2005

KC, I just heard on NPR that there were more votes against Henry Clay in 1825 than there were against Rice. Small point, I know.

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