Who'll Ace the Confirmation Grillings?

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Senator John McCain greets commerce secretary nominee Don Evans

If every one of his Cabinet nominees was as politically unassailable as Commerce Secretary–designate Don Evans, President-elect Bush could hit the ground running on January 20.

Unfortunately for Bush, it doesn't look like that'll be the case.

Evans, a longtime Bush friend and fund-raiser whose previous life as an oilman didn't present much opportunity for him to make political enemies, looks primed to sail through his Senate confirmation hearings, which began Thursday. But congressional observers predict that other, less innocuous nominees could be in for a very rough ride, including ex-Missouri senator John Ashcroft, who is nominated for attorney general, and former Colorado attorney general Gale Norton, who has been named to head the Department of the Interior.

First, though, the sure shots: Colin Powell and Paul O'Neill can start ordering business cards for their respective posts as secretary of state and treasury secretary. Ditto Ann Veneman for Agriculture, Mel Martinez for HUD, and Norm Mineta at Transportation. Donald Rumsfeld, the nominee for defense secretary, probably won't face any real challenge — after all, he's done the job before — and confirmation for Spencer Abraham (Energy), Rod Paige (Education) and Anthony Principi (Veterans Affairs) is likely to be quick and clean.

On to the less-than-sure-shots: Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, zealous welfare reformer and pro-life advocate, is up for the top job at Health and Human Services. Many left-of-center Dems are likely to cringe at aspects of his record, but moderates from both parties recognize Thompson's clout — and stand frankly in awe of his groundbreaking work in welfare reform. He may field a few tough questions, but Thompson will be fine.

Confirming Linda Chavez, the nominee to head the Labor Department, will chafe pro-labor Democrats and those interested in raising the minimum wage; Chavez, a former Reagan administration official, has demonstrated a strong enmity toward both.

Finally, at the center of a brewing storm: Norton and Ashcroft. During the Reagan administration, Norton worked under Interior Secretary James Watt, who almost single-handedly galvanized the environmental movement with his pro-business policies. Norton has engaged congressional Democrats before — when she tried unsuccessfully to convince them to open the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. To many environmentalists, Norton's tendency to consider corporate interests when making land-use decisions, considered alongside Bush's repeated insistence that current land protection policies are too broad, lead many environmentalists to fear Norton could represent the worst-case scenario for America's federal expanses; groups like the Sierra Club are gearing up for a well-funded drive to defeat Norton.

Ashcroft, a staunch conservative whose nomination to head the Justice Department sent many congressional Democrats reeling, could face the toughest confirmation hearing of any Cabinet member. Analysts predict Ashcroft will be confirmed in the end — Senators are unlikely to blackball someone who was until recently one of their own — but some suspect he may wish he hadn't been. Democrats complain the former Missouri senator embodies far too many of their least favorite qualities: As of Thursday Ashcroft's nomination is opposed by pro-choice advocates, environmentalists, civil rights organizations and labor groups. If resources run thin and activists are forced to choose one nominee to oppose with all their might, many seem to feel Ashcroft is their man.