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No Nominees, But Obama Cabinet Already Has Critics

Dec 2, 2012
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Obama has less than two months before the start of his second term. Often, that means a lot of shuffling in the presidential cabinet. The recent resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus means there's an open spot at Langley. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she will leave that office at the end of the year.

But a president does not get to pick a cabinet unilaterally. The Constitution requires the, quote, "advice and consent" of the Senate. And in the case of a possible nominee for secretary of State, that has caused a lot of headaches for the White House.

For more on the possible composition of the next Obama cabinet, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, let's start with the controversy over Susan Rice. She's currently the ambassador to the United Nations, but there've been all kinds of very public speculation that the president wants her to be the next secretary of State. This has triggered an unusual outcry from the Republicans. Is she still on the short list?

LIASSON: Well, she's certainly on the short list. President Obama said at a cabinet meeting last week, he said, Susan Rice is extraordinary; I couldn't be prouder of the job she's done. He has sent her up to Capitol Hill to kind of test the waters, to see if she could convince some of her critics to soften their opposition. It didn't work out that way.

She had private meetings with a bunch of senators. And afterwards, four of them seem to be even more adamantly opposed to her. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, two of the senators who are her critics, said that they would place a hold on her nomination. And, of course, the question is could she get the 60 votes necessary, which means she'd have to get five - about five Republicans - to get confirmed.

So now the question is will the president go forward with her nomination? Do they think they can get her through? Is he willing to fight to the bitter end on this? Is she willing to go through this? So that's a decision that has yet to be made. But her chances don't look any better now than they did before she went up to Capitol Hill.

MARTIN: We should just remind people that the outcry from the get-go was over how she handled the messaging about the Benghazi tragedy that led to the death of a U.S. ambassador.

LIASSON: And, of course, if he Susan Rice should either not be nominated, or her nomination should fail, John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, is waiting in the wings. Republican senators have said he'd be confirmed very easily. So he clearly would be the next choice for State.

MARTIN: And I mentioned in the open spot at the CIA; the secretary of Defense is another important post that will have to be filled when the current secretary, Leon Panetta, steps down, which is expected to happen early next year. What are you hearing about these particular cabinet positions?

LIASSON: Well, there are a lot of other possible openings. Certainly Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, has been mentioned for that position. Michelle Flournoy, who is the former undersecretary of Defense, has been mentioned for that position. CIA, could be Tom Donilon, the current National Security adviser. It's possible that Eric Holder, who's the attorney general could leave; in which case, Janet Napolitano - who is the current Homeland Security secretary - might be a possible replacement for him.

Other names for Justice that have been floated our Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts; Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic senator from Rhode Island. There are a lot of positions that have to be filled. Treasury is a really big one. Tim Geithner wants to leave. And the current Chief of Staff at the White House, Jack Lew, is at the top of the mentioning list to replace him at Treasury. So the president has a lot of jobs to fill.

MARTIN: Switching gears a bit, Mara, I want to ask you about this high profile lunch date President Obama had last week. He and Mitt Romney got together for a meal and some conversation. Is that just pro forma? Or was that in some way a real attempt by the president to reach out to the GOP?

LIASSON: Well, I think it is pro forma but it's also an attempt to reach out. This is something that the president did after he was elected in 2008. He had John McCain up to the White House. I don't think that Mitt Romney will have a role in this administration, outside or inside. But it is a courtesy and it's a symbolic gesture to the Republicans.

MARTIN: You say he won't have a role in it administration. What is Mitt Romney's role in the party?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question because he's not being embraced as someone who could describe the future of the party. He made some remarks after the election describing why he lost, saying it was because the president gave a lot of gifts to Hispanic and African-American voters and young voters that angered a lot of Republicans. And I don't think that he's going to be part of the discussion that's now going on in the Republican Party about what they need to do to start winning national elections again.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.