Senate Fails To Confirm Some Of Obama’s Key Progressive Nominations

Before adjourning for its winter break yesterday, the Senate confirmed 30 of President Obama’s nominees for federal posts, including the head administrators for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the Senate also rebuffed six other nominations, including Office of Legal Counsel nominee Dawn Johnsen and Department of Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith — both of whom tout solid progressive credentials. The Washington Post reports:

The Senate did not take a formal vote Thursday on any of the officials, but Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said, “They ran into opposition.”

As head of the OLC, Johnsen would lead the same office which, under Jay Bybee’s command in the Bush administration, gave sanction to the use of torture. Johnsen was a fierce outspoken critic of the so-called “torture memos,” writing, “We must regain our ability to feel outrage whenever our government acts lawlessly and devises bogus constitutional arguments for outlandishly expansive presidential power.”


Johnsen was criticized by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) for lacking the “seriousness and necessary resolve to address the national security challenges we face.” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) expressed concern over her “outspoken pro-choice views.” And Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) registered his opposition to Johnsen without offering an explanation. As the Washington Post wrote in an editorial this week:

Perhaps the greatest nominations travesty, however, is the one involving Dawn E. Johnsen’s selection to head the Justice Department’s influential Office of Legal Counsel. … [T]he president should be given deference in choosing executive-branch officials who share his views. Ms. Johnsen is highly qualified and should be confirmed. At the very least, senators should have the decency to give her an up-or-down vote.

As for Patricia Smith, if confirmed, she would have been responsible for enforcing all of the nation’s workplace laws and representing the agency in all enforcement actions. Under the Bush administration, the solicitor’s office — once headed by Eugene Scalia (son of Justice Antonin Scalia) — sat on its hands and failed to enforce even the most flagrant labor violations. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) had placed a hold on her nomination.

The nominations of Johnsen, Smith, and four others were returned to the White House yesterday. President Obama will now have to decide whether to re-nominate the individuals.