The US president can change the composition of the senate (and the House) by appointing congressmen to jobs at the White House, who are replaced in special elections. The current president recently lost on the health care bill by only one vote, so it is speculated that he will appoint some senators soon.

Has this evidently been done by other presidents and has it been successful? It is an interesting form of influence over the legislative branch. What are the most important things to know about this little institution?

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    The President cannot appoint anyone against their will. Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 19:04
  • @JonathanReez Of course not, but if the senator's reelection outlook is bad he has a common interest with the president to change career.
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 19:17
  • @JonathanReez - and sending someone who is sick of politics to a tropical paradise where the duties of ambassador, for instance, for that nation pretty much amount to nil isn't a bad way for that person to pad one's federal service years and pension before eventually retiring. Obviously, the opportunities where all the factors line up aren't common (opposing party affiliation for the governor who appoints replacement or electoral outlook for a special election, someone willing to throw the party under the bus, etc). Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 14:13

1 Answer 1



The biggest limitation on this is that then the President is stuck with someone from the other party as a cabinet secretary. While cabinet secretaries are not all powerful, they do have influence over their department.

Another limitation is that it requires someone to be willing to give up their Senate (or House) seat, knowing the impact that it would have on the Senate.

Replacements are appointed by the government of their state. So for this to work, the Senator has to be from a state where the appointer is from the correct party. This is usually the governor, but it's a state process, controlled by state law.

Of course, this only works with Senators that you want to have replaced. So there are many states that might appoint the right replacement but where the Senators don't actually require replacement. For example, Donald Trump appointed Jeff Sessions, who was replaced by Luther Strange. But Trump didn't need a replacement for Sessions.

Many Senators that Trump would want to replace are from states where the replacement would be chosen by a Democrat. The intersection of the two criteria limits the potential candidates. For example, Manchin would have been replaced by a Democrat previously. It's only Justice's party switch that makes this useful there. Again, this would be true for other presidents, not just Trump.

It's also rare for it to matter. Many times the Senate balance isn't so close that switching a single Senator can sway it. And of course, the Senators most likely to switch are those who are most likely to cross the aisle. For that matter, the balance currently isn't that close. The Republicans already have a majority and aren't close to a sixty vote super majority. So this would only matter on the health care vote and other votes that cleaved the same way.

There is a bit of a trust issue. Technically, members of Congress have to resign prior to becoming cabinet secretary. So a president could nominate someone and cancel the appointment after the resignation but before the person took office. Or fire the cabinet secretary.

Previous attempts

It was never described that way, but Barack Obama's nomination of Judd Gregg would have had this effect. At the time, the Democrats had 58 Senators (including Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman as independents). Gregg's replacement would have been the 59th and Al Franken the 60th. As it happened, it didn't matter, as they convinced Arlen Specter to switch instead. That gave them 60 votes until Scott Brown took office.

Of course, with Gregg's replacement, they might have had the sixty vote super majority sooner and longer. Gregg ended up withdrawing his name from consideration, citing irreconcilable policy differences.

It's relatively rare for Presidents to appoint cabinet secretaries from the other party. Certainly not unknown, but a small portion of the overall appointments. An even smaller number of those are from the Senate or the House.

Bob Casey was appointed to a position in 1976 by Gerald Ford. This might have brought the Democrats in the House of Representatives below the two thirds super majority threshold on some votes. Or maybe not.

  • So senator replacements after appointments don't seem to have played an important role historically. But now, in theory, Trump could tell McCain "-Either you vote for this bill, or Manchin's replacement will in a couple of months." McCain's position as the finger tip on the balance has a good chance of being eliminated by a well chosen presidential appointment initiative between ordinary senate elections. Justice's conversion and maybe Manchin's appointment to Energy, is a natural tactical reaction, and threat, to GOP's failure with the health bill.
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 10:11
  • @LocalFluff what makes you believe McCain is the only thing stopping the ACA repeal from passing? The Republicans obviously don't want it to pass and the 1 vote failure was carefully orchestrated for the voters. Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 14:58
  • @JonathanReez The 51-49 vote with McCain as the decisive vote on the socialist side, is what makes me believe that. By appointing a democrat senator in a red state to head the EPA, Trump will get "his" (or whatever) health bill through the senate before the midterm. If one senator obstructs, another one will replace him and his fiftieth vote. There are 100 of them to fish upon in the duck pond of the House. just put the baits out and some of them will bite sooner or later.
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 17:36
  • @LocalFluff again, just because it failed by a single vote doesn't mean this reflects the true wishes of the Republican party. A lot of the voting is purely strategic. Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 18:00

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