Nominees praised, but honeymoon won’t last forever

The grilling Tim Geithner received at his confirmation hearing was more exception than rule, as senators have generally welcomed President Obama’s Cabinet nominees with praise and a promise to cooperate.

A few of the hearings have been so absent of controversy that they bordered on love-fests. But underneath the compliments and well-wishes it was clear that the same tensions that created conflicts between Congress and the Bush administration hadn’t been completely swept away by the nation’s apparent embrace of change, or, as President Obama said at his Inaugural, “hope over fear.”

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Some Republican senators remain fearful of certain policies the new administration might promote, particularly as they relate to the environment, although they joined Democrats in speedily confirming seven nominees on Obama’s first day in office.

Here is a rundown of a few of the hearings thus far, and the potential for trouble down the road on a few key issues:

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu wasn’t on many of the e-mails and papers listing potential Cabinet nominees that started flying around K Street shortly after the networks called the election for Obama. His surprise pick has nevertheless drawn bipartisan support.

It was actually Democrats who took the lead in pressing a potential controversy at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Chu’s statement as Lawrence Berkeley director that coal was his “worst nightmare.” Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, asked him to explain the comment, which Chu did, saying that coal could not continue to be burned as it is now, with no way to sequester carbon dioxide emissions.

Chu said he supported the development of clean coal technology. Equally important to coal supporters, Chu said that he would not call for a moratorium on the construction of plants that did not have that capacity.

Even the coal industry seems satisfied. Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, praised the Nobel laureate’s intellect, and said the group welcomed Chu’s background in science.

Besides clean coal, potential conflicts could come in how supportive the department is in helping the nuclear energy industry build more plants through a federal loan guarantee program. Members from the Northwest, meanwhile, will pay close attention to how much Chu and his department spend in cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site in Washington state.

The Senate confirmed Chu this week.

The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t a Cabinet-level position. But it will be one of the hottest seats in Washington, with the EPA likely to take the lead in the fight over global warming after the Supreme Court gave the OK to do so in Massachusetts v. EPA.

Lisa Jackson, who was the head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, was praised by members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as a charmer — as well as an experienced regulator with a sharp intellect.

Climate change skeptic Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), who is the committee’s ranking Republican, will likely be a thorn in the new administration’s side.

But he was ready to leave that fight for another day: “Jackson seems to be a reasonable person. And so am I. I think it will work out,” he said of the EPA nominee.

Inhofe, however, called efforts by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act a “particular concern.” Jackson indicated that the EPA could very well act on regulating carbon, without saying that the agency absolutely would under her direction.

She also promised to quickly tackle another controversy: whether California and other states should be granted a waiver to adopt new tailpipe emissions standards. If she approves the waiver, she’ll anger Republicans and supporters of the auto industry in Congress. But if she denies it, she’ll anger Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D), a Californian who strongly supports her state’s efforts to tackle global warming.

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Sen. Ken Salazar’s (D-Colo.) hearing was more homecoming than inquiry. Salazar, tapped to run the Department of the Interior, was still a senator when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee reviewed his nomination.

The praise was so effusive that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joked the hearing was becoming a bouquet-throwing contest. Still, there were several potential stumbling blocks that surfaced at least briefly.

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Republicans on the panel wanted to know if Salazar agreed with using the Endangered Species Act to regulate climate change. He was also asked if he supported the right to carry guns in national parks. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) sought assurances that Salazar would press for more money for the chronically underfunded park system.

And then there’s the biggie: whether to drill for oil and gas in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Salazar, who as a senator was part of a bipartisan group that supported some drilling of the OCS, skirted most of the questions. But he promised to work closely with committee members as Interior began to formulate policy. The Senate approved his nomination this week.

Shaun Donovan, the president’s choice to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was similarly lauded. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who was President Bush’s first HUD secretary, said of Donovan: “He’s far more qualified than I was.”

Donovan was a former top HUD staffer and has served for nearly five years as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

But Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) also pointed to the enormity of the task before Donovan, given the recent crisis in the housing sector and its contribution to the overall economic downturn.

“You will be one of the most significant figures in our overall financial economy,” Reed said. That means Donovan will also be one of the most closely watched figures in the administration.

At his confirmation hearing, Arne Duncan stressed investing heavily in early childhood education and teacher retention to improve graduation rates in high schools and colleges. Duncan, who ran Chicago public schools before accepting the position as head of the Department of Education, was widely praised by the members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

But he hedged on his position on No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature education law.

The law set new standards for public schools and is up for reauthorization this Congress. Donovan indicated that the law should be improved, but not buried. He also endorsed using merit pay to increase teachers’ salaries, something the teachers’ union lobby has opposed.

The Senate has confirmed Duncan’s nomination.

Tom Vilsack is a former Democratic governor of Iowa, but Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee sang his praises along with Democrats at his confirmation hearing to become secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bipartisan tenor of the hearing also was evident in senators’ criticism of the USDA under the Bush administration. Members complained the department had not been implementing the Farm Bill that Congress passed last year as intended.

{mospagebreak}For his part, Vilsack promised to keep his door open to members of both parties. But he didn’t take the bait offered by senators like Tom Harkin (D), the committee chairman who also hails from Iowa, when pressed to offer a defense of the farm subsidies in the law.

Vilsack, whose nomination was also approved as Agriculture secretary this week, has supported farm subsidies in the past. Another area to watch is how the department supports corn-based ethanol.

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Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki faces a daunting task: improving the services for the growing number of wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time of ballooning federal deficits that could make dollars scarcer.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a supporter of Shinseki’s, nevertheless stressed the need to ensure the quality of healthcare does not deteriorate as more veterans come home.

Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, vowed to work on a “credible and adequate 2010 budget request.” His nomination was confirmed by the Senate this week.

On Wednesday, the Senate also voted to confirm the nomination of former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of State. Clinton also received a warm embrace at her hearing, though some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed her on certain contributors to her husband’s foundation.

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the committee’s ranking Republican, called Clinton’s qualifications “remarkable.”


Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), meanwhile, drew praise as a man of “great integrity and strong dedication” from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the chairman of the HELP Committee. Daschle has been tapped to take over the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). He still faces a review by the Senate Finance Committee, which has formal jurisdiction over whether to recommend an HHS nominee to the full Senate.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was effusive in his praise of Daschle at the HELP hearing. But Enzi also rejected the idea of a publicly financed health plan to compete with private insurance, a key plank in Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.


Reporters Kevin Bogardus, Klaus Marre, Samuel Rubenfeld, Roxana Tiron, Reid Wilson and Jeffrey Young contributed to this report.