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For New Presidents, Contentious Cabinet Votes Have Been Rare but Nasty

Confirmation Hearings for Top Trump Cabinet Members Begin This Week 2:06

There have been questions about racism, calls for probes of insider trading, and implications of sympathy for ruthless dictators.

And the confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks haven’t even started yet.

Trump may face the rockiest path of any of his recent predecessors in filling his Cabinet. Democrats in Congress are already threatening to slow-walk confirmation proceedings if nominees don’t turn over background information and financial disclosures on time. And they’ve identified a hefty chunk of the Cabinet designees – eight – as prime targets for aggressive questioning.

Chief on that list are Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, whose close relationship with Russia during his decades in the oil industry will be a key point of contention, and Attorney General pick Jeff Sessions, whose past comments on race derailed his 1986 bid to become a federal judge. Also atop the target list is Trump’s pick to head the Health and Human Services Department, Tom Price, who faces questions about buying and selling medical company stocks while serving as a top policy-making official.

McConnell after Trump Meeting: Nominees 'Will be Properly Vetted' 0:39

But early opposition to a Cabinet nominee has rarely translated into a full-fledged defeat on the Senate floor.

For the last four decades, Senate votes on a new president’s Cabinet picks have largely been a civil affair. Since the Carter era, about three-quarters of each incoming president’s first set of Cabinet picks have been approved unanimously by members of the United States Senate, and all but about a dozen have suffered only one or two dissenting votes. (Newcomers to American politics would be surprised to hear that all but two Republican senators gave a greenlight to incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton one day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated.)

Still, each of the last six presidents have faced at least one problematic nominee, although those with significant baggage — like Clinton Attorney General nominee Zoe Baird, Bush 43 Labor nominee Linda Chavez and Obama Cabinet picks Bill Richardson and Tom Daschle — have tended to withdraw their names from consideration before the vote or even before confirmation hearings begin.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most divided confirmation votes for Cabinet picks made by an incoming president in the last 40 years:

JOHN TOWER – Secretary of Defense (47 yea, 53 nay)

Only once have members of the Senate voted to reject a first-term president’s Cabinet nominee — and they did it to a former member of their own Capitol Hill club. Former senator John Tower of Texas, George H.W. Bush’s pick for his first Secretary of Defense, was rejected by a vote of 47-53 after an extremely public debate about his personal life that scandalized those used to Washington’s typical decorum.

After weeks of gossip about Tower’s personal dalliances, including an FBI investigation into his background, conservative activist Paul Weyrich went public with his own charges at Tower’s confirmation hearing, saying, “Over the course of many years, I have encountered the nominee in a condition, a lack of sobriety, as well as with women to whom he was not married.”

Tower acknowledged drinking to excess in the past but insisted that he did not have a problem with alcohol, telling committee chairman Sam Nunn, “I am a man of some discipline.” In addition to the more salacious accusations about his private conduct, Tower also faced allegations that he was too cozy with the defense contracting industry. Attempts to save his nomination — including Tower’s televised pledge to quit drinking entirely if confirmed — weren’t enough to prevent a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own former colleagues. Tower’s demise resulted in a promotion for another Republican politician who would become a household name in America; Bush selected Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney as Tower’s replacement.

Trump tests media with aggressive schedule 14:10

JOHN ASHCROFT – Attorney General (58 yea, 42 nay)

Nominees for the high-stakes post of Attorney General have often faced intense scrutiny, and former Missouri senator John Ashcroft’s deeply conservative views made him a prime target for Democratic foes in 2001. Critics fought his nomination in large part because of his stances on race and gay rights.

Justice Ronnie White, the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court, testified at Ashcroft’s hearing that the former senator “seriously distorted” his record to block him from a federal judgeship by calling him “pro-criminal” and soft on the death penalty. Critics also made an issue of Ashcroft’s challenges to a voluntary desegregation plan in St Louis as well as his frank statements of disapproval of gays and lesbians. (Those statements included his opposition to the nomination of a gay businessman as the ambassador to Luxembourg on the grounds that “his conduct and the way in which he would represent the United States is probably not up to the standard I would expect.”) Ashcroft was ultimately confirmed after five weeks by a 58-42 vote.

RAYMOND DONOVAN – Secretary of Labor (80 yea, 17 nay)

When the phrase “murderous slime” starts getting thrown around, you know a Congressional hearing is getting interesting. Raymond Donovan was the head of a New Jersey construction company when newly-elected President Ronald Reagan made him his pick for Labor Secretary.

A major Reagan donor with no prior government experience — but with ties to the blue-collar workers who helped the California Republican thunder to victory — Donovan came under swift scrutiny for his alleged ties to organized crime. His hearing was delayed as the FBI investigated allegations that he made payoffs to union bosses, charges the investigators ultimately said they could not corroborate.

When asked about the investigation during his confirmation hearing, Donovan shot back with some pretty hot language, according to a New York Times report at the time. “I am in the construction business, Senator, and you people are in public life,” he told Sen. Ted Kennedy. “You ask me about unfounded, scurrilous charges. Have these kinds of charges never been made against you by murderous slime?” When Democrats suggested he submit to a polygraph, Donovan called the test “an insult to my dignity.”

Donovan was ultimately confirmed by an 80-17 vote, but it wasn’t smooth sailing from then on. He left office in 1985 after being ordered to stand trial on fraud and larceny charges, making him the first sitting Cabinet secretary to be indicted while in office.

How Tillerson could be damaging to Capitol Hill 14:31

GRIFFIN BELL – Attorney General (75 yea, 21 nay)

Like Trump’s AG pick, Jeff Sessions, Griffin Bell’s nomination was immediately met with criticisms of his record on race. A longtime judge in the Deep South who once worked for a Georgia governor who campaigned on a segregation platform, Bell was accused by some critics of slowing school integration and promoting agreements that hurt black schoolchildren.

During his confirmation process, Bell also fumbled criticism of his membership in three private clubs in Georgia that excluded women and minorities. He first proposed taking a “leave of absence” from the groups to avoid losing membership dues, then said he would leave the organizations only if confirmed, and finally offered to resign immediately but reserved the right to rejoin the clubs after leaving office. The nomination revealed rifts between various civil rights groups, with those based in the South defending Bell’s record while those based in the North deriding him.

History ultimately judged Bell kindly; as attorney general under Jimmy Carter, he was credited with helping to restore trust in government in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS – Health and Human Services (65 yea, 31 nay)

The former Kansas governor wasn’t Barack Obama’s first choice to head the department that would oversee his sprawling new health care policy. But his top choice, former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew his name after revelations that he failed to pay $128,000 in taxes.

Democrats hoped for a quick confirmation for the president’s replacement pick, but Republicans started slow-walking the process, citing Sebelius’s record in favor of abortion rights. Anti-abortion groups were particularly incensed about her acceptance of contributions from a doctor who performed abortions, an issue further exacerbated when she had to acknowledge receiving more money from the doctor than she originally reported.

Republicans also used the confirmation hearings to express worry about the coming Democratic health care initiative. The pressing threat of an ongoing swine flu outbreak ultimately hastened the confirmation process, but Democrats still had to overcome a series of procedural hurdles before a final vote. Thirty-one senators, all Republicans, voted no.