Since World War II, the Senate has actually voted down only two such picks, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The first of these was President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 choice to lead the Department of Commerce, Lewis Strauss. A former admiral, Strauss had accumulated many enemies as the outspoken head of the Atomic Energy Commission. His confirmation hearing did not go well, as he gave what some senators considered evasive answers while demanding to cross-examine hostile witnesses. In addition, Democrats had made big gains in both House and Senate in the 1958 mid-term elections, and held a 64-to-34 Senate majority.
“Appearing to question the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, the imperious Strauss personified the worst elements of executive-branch domination at precisely the time that the Senate sought to cast off such control and had acquired the Democratic majorities to do so,” writes the Senate Historical Office.
The second Senate nomination-vote loser was Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, who was nominated as secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. A recognized defense expert and one of the Senate’s own, Senator Tower at first seemed a safe choice. But allegations of alcohol abuse, plus questions about his role as a consultant to defense contractors, sank his bid following a contentious debate.
“The rejection of Tower’s nomination was surprising because the Senate allows presidents great latitude in selecting top-level members of their administrations,” writes James King, chairman of the University of Wyoming political science department, in a study of the Senate nomination process.