All presidents lose a few big nomination fights. Susan Rice would have been one (Interactive)

Chris Wilson

By Chris Wilson

Update, 4:02 p.m. Dec. 13, 2012: Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration for Secretary of State. Because she was never nominated for the position, she will not appear in the interactive below.

For someone who hasn’t been nominated for anything recently, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice seems to be running into an awful lot of confirmation trouble.

Rice has been widely discussed as a potential successor to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, a prospect that has come under assault from multiple flanks.

Prominent Senate Republicans launched a preemptive strike on the idea of a Rice nomination in November, saying she had misled the public by casting the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi as a mob response to an inflammatory anti-Islam video rather than a terrorist attack, as it was later proven to be. Nearly 100 House Republicans helpfully added their support to that cause, even though the House of Representatives has nothing to do with confirming presidential nominations.

In Monday’s New York Times, Rice enjoyed the distinction of unflattering coverage from both ends of the A section. In the news pages, a story dissected Rice’s support for Rwandan president Paul Kagame, whom many blame for escalating violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the opinion pages, an Eritrean-American journalist called on President Barack Obama to nominate someone else based on Rice’s support for the late Ethiopian autocrat Meles Zenawi.

Nominating candidates to high-profile government posts is one of the most politically exposed responsibilities of the presidency, and bringing down a nominee is an easy way for a political rival to ding a new or newly reelected president. Should Obama nominate Rice to replace Clinton, she could join Robert Bork and Harriet Miers in the pantheon of two-term presidents’ botched nominations.

I built a database of all civilian presidential nominations in the Library of Congress’s legislative depot, which has searchable info on nominations going back to the 100th Congress, the last of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure.

Presidents are responsible for nominating a huge number of positions, from the chief justice of the Supreme Court to members of the National Museum and Library Services Board. That means the Senate receives between about 700 and 1,400 nominations each session to approve. I limited my investigation to a president’s most prominent nominations: Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, federal appeals judges, and United States attorneys.

In the following interactive, you can see how those nominations fared in each session of the Senate. The nominations are divided by type on the left and by result on the right.

The Senate rarely rejects nominations. Instead, they typically die one of two ways: The president could decide the nomination is a lost cause and withdraw it, as President George W. Bush did with Miers, who was cast as too inexperienced by some senators and insufficiently conservative by many Republicans.

The Senate can also refuse to put the president’s nomination to a vote. In this case, Senate rules hold that the nomination is dead in the water and must be resubmitted in the next session.

But some nominees have faced outright rejection by the Senate.

They include Robert Bork, a conservative federal appeals court judge Reagan nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987, who was voted down by the Democratic-controlled Senate by margin of 58-42.

John Tower, the former Republican senator from Texas whom President George H. W. Bush tapped for secretary of defense in 1989, was rejected by a margin of 53-47 amid allegations of Tower’s alcohol abuse and womanizing.  It was the first time the Senate had rejected a newly elected president’s Cabinet nominee.  

But Tower at least survived without having his name turned into a verb for political rejection.

How nominations fare has a lot to do with whether the president’s party controls the Senate.

President Bill Clinton, who had a Democratic House and Senate during his first two years in office in 1993-94, had only five major nominations returned without a verdict during that period. Clinton also withdrew his nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general amid evidence she had hired illegal immigrants to work as household help.

Democrats lost both chambers of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, and the Republican Senate that followed confirmed only about half of Clinton’s major nominations.

Obama may be the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to serve two full terms with a Senate controlled by his own party, given that Republicans presently face an uphill battle to retake the upper chamber in 2014. Even with that buffer, the potential for a Rice confirmation may already be in jeopardy, if for no other reason than that the opposition senses the opportunity for a political victory.