Which Cabinet Nominee Faces the Biggest Confirmation Pothole?

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Gale Norton likely will have a harder job being confirmed than Donald Rumsfeld

Just as the winter weather opens ever-larger potholes on America's highways, the potholes along the road to the confirmation of President-elect Bush's Cabinet nominees are getting a little bigger each day.

Less than a week after the President-elect rounded out his list of Cabinet members, Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez has already withdrawn her name from consideration after facing a firestorm of questions regarding an illegal immigrant who lived in the Chavez home. And now Democrats, lobbyists and the media are warning everyone to strap on seat belts in preparation for the upcoming confirmation hearings: We could be in for a rocky ride.

For a few of the remaining nominees, the barriers amount to no more than a little test of the incoming administration's suspension. For example, according to the Jerusalem Post, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell accepted $200,000 for a speech held a couple of days before the election from a group sponsored by a Lebanese diplomat with ties to the Syrian government. The transaction, the story's writer speculates, could cast a shadow on Powell's hearings, given the United States' historically close ties to Israel.

But it probably won't. While some Democrats (and a few Republicans) are sure to pinpoint aspects of Powell's professional life they're not absolutely comfortable with, most politicians realize that blackballing someone of Powell's stature and bipartisan popularity on the basis of an anti-Arab complaint is tantamount to career suicide. If, as several pundits have pointed out, Powell had given a speech to an Israeli group, we'd never have heard about it in the first place.

Prediction: Powell won't have any trouble with this allegation.

With the next nominee, the pothole of controversy goes a bit deeper, and could cause some serious damage. Gale Norton, the interior secretary-designate, faces fierce opposition from environmental groups for her well-documented interest in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and her belief that protected lands should be open for "multiple uses" like logging or industry.

And unfortunately for Norton, her most vociferous reference could end up hurting her the most. President Reagan's contentious interior secretary, James Watt, calls her "a great gal who has come into her own," according to the Washington Post, and describes himself as her "sponsor." That's music to anti-Norton forces' ears; Watt was widely reviled for what opponents felt was a slash-and-burn approach to environmentally sensitive land.

Prediction: Some pundits say Norton could be the GOP's second sacrificial lamb — an easily replaced functionary who, like Chavez, isnít not worth the political capital it would take to defend her.

The award for the oldest skeleton in the closet goes to Donald Rumsfeld. A story in the Chicago Tribune has raised a ghost that Bush's nominee for secretary of defense probably wishes had stayed buried. The paper claims that during tapes from the Nixon administration, Rumsfeld, on his way to his first stint in the Pentagon under Gerald Ford, can be heard agreeing with some of Nixon's less politically correct assessments of minority groups.

Prediction: Rumsfeld won't take too much heat over this; while it's certainly pleasant to imagine an underling taking Nixon to task for his paranoid rantings, it's not exactly realistic.

And finally, there's John Ashcroft, who at this point looks very much like the heat-seeking missile of these confirmation hearings. Unlike Chavez, Ashcroft is unlikely to remove himself from consideration, no matter how virulent the attacks get — and they promise to be plenty virulent. Nobody on the left likes Bush's pick for attorney general: Abortion-rights activists, minority groups, feminists, labor unions and environmentalists are already bombarding congressional offices with information designed to destroy Ashcroft's nomination. The former senator is under fire for his pro-life views, his efforts to derail judicial appointments of blacks and women and his affiliation with Bob Jones University, where he received an honorary degree. The liberals' antipathy, of course, is enough to solidify fervent support for Ashcroft among conservatives, who see him as an example of the upstanding and morally sound leadership they believe was so notably absent during the eight long years of the Clinton administration. Some senators may also be loath to blackball someone they worked alongside for so many years — although plenty of others will have no such trouble.

Prediction: This will be a blockbuster fight, with both sides pulling out all the stops. If Ashcroft takes office, he will do so a bruised man.