The Senate has formally rejected only a handful of cabinet nominees over the past two centuries. The 64-year period between 1925 and 1989 produced just one rejection. It occurred on June 19, 1959.
President Dwight Eisenhower called it "the second most shameful day in Senate history," second only to Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial. Time magazine pronounced it a "stinging personal slap . . . U.S. history's bitterest battle over confirmation of a presidential nomination." Others debated whether it was a "legislative lynching or political suicide."
When Eisenhower gave Admiral Lewis Strauss a recess appointment as secretary of commerce two weeks before the 1958 midterm congressional elections, neither man expected the cataclysm that awaited the Republican Party on election day. Strauss had served for the previous four years as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. His tenure there had been particularly stormy. On one occasion, he angrily stated that New Mexico's Democratic Senator Clinton Anderson, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, had "a limited understanding of what is involved" in cold-war atomic energy policy. Although Anderson never forgave Strauss for that remark, he told the White House he would not stand in the way of his confirmation to the lower-profile post as commerce secretary.
The 1958 elections, however, dramatically changed the Senate's composition and outlook. An economic recession, White House influence-peddling scandals, and concerns over Soviet breakthroughs in outer space produced the largest transfer of seats from one party to another in the Senate's history. Democrats gained 13 Republican seats, plus two seats from the new state of Alaska. This added up to 64 Democrats and 34 Republicans.
With the 1960 elections nearing, congressional Democrats sought issues on which they could conspicuously oppose the Republican administration. The Strauss nomination proved tailor made. During confirmation hearings that quickly turned sour, Strauss displayed a condescending and disdainful attitude toward members of the Senate. His insistence on remaining at the witness table to cross-examine hostile witnesses—and senators—angered his supporters and delighted opponents. Anderson abandoned his earlier hands-off pledge and vigorously lobbied his Senate colleagues to reject the imperious admiral.
At 35 minutes past midnight, on June 19, 1959, in a packed Senate Chamber, the Strauss nomination died on a cliff-hanging roll-call vote of 46 in favor, 49 opposed. The Strauss rejection heralded a period of legislative stalemate for the remaining 18 months of the Eisenhower presidency.
Baker, Richard A. "A Slap at the `Hidden-Hand Presidency': The Senate and the Lewis Strauss Affair." Congress and the Presidency 14 (Spring, 1987): 1-15.