Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis announced Wednesday that she will leave the administration — a surprise resignation that adds to what is turning into a major shake-up among President Obama’s team.
The White House was already poised to announce that Mr. Obama will promote White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to the Treasury secretary post, setting up another contentious confirmation battle on Capitol Hill, where the president’s selection this week of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon is already running into opposition.
Clearly sensitive about the series of Cabinet moves, the White House said late Wednesday that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki plan to stay.
But Ms. Solis‘ decision to leave has the White House on the defense about diversity in Mr. Obama’s second-term Cabinet. Her resigning follows the decision to leave the administration by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and comes on the heels of U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of state.
After Mr. Obama announced his choices of Mr. Hagel, Nebraska Republican, for defense secretary and deputy National Security Adviser John O. Brennan to head the CIA this week, the White House has been peppered with questions about women in his administration.
“The president does believe that diversity is very important,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday, “and he also believes that picking the absolute right person for each job is very important.”
There are “remarkably capable women” throughout the administration, Mr. Carney said, specifically naming Mrs. Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano and Mrs. Rice, who withdrew after controversy arose about her role in the administration’s efforts to manage news on the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
White House officials said people should not read too much into the early picks — so far only one man has replaced a woman on Mr. Obama’s team: Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, was picked to succeed Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state.
The president has faced persistent criticism during his first term on the role of women in the administration. Though he had more women than the George W. Bush administration at the very top of his staff, the White House record on pay equity was mixed. Mr. Obama also was criticized for preferring male-dominated environments, such as frequent golf outings and off-hours basketball with NBA stars and male Cabinet officials.
In 2011, Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” quoted former White House communications director Anita Dunn as calling the White House a “hostile workplace” for women. She said the quote had been taken out of context.
Still, after news broke about the departure of Ms. Solis, Mr. Obama quickly released a statement hailing the Californian as a “tireless champion for working families” and a “critical member of my economic team” and wishing her well in her future endeavors.
Fresh off the first “fiscal cliff” battle with more to come, Mr. Obama has decided to pick even more battles with Republicans over his first few Cabinet choices of his second term and can’t afford to alienate the large swath of female voters who helped give him a second term in the process.
Even before it was official, Mr. Hagel’s nomination kicked up a cloud of consternation from Republicans who question his commitment to Israel and his willingness to get tough with Iran over its nuclear program. Some liberals and gay-rights advocates have criticized him for his stances while he was a senator on social issues such as homosexuality and abortion.
Mr. Brennan was the White House’s leading choice to replace David H. Petraeus at the CIA for weeks and had been under consideration for the CIA chief job when Mr. Obama first took office four years ago. He had been chief of staff to a previous director and its deputy executive director.
But Mr. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration in 2008 over his Bush-era support for, or passive complicity in, the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques characterized by some as “torture.” He is now again taking heat from liberals over that issue and other counterterrorism efforts.
A longtime Washington insider known for remaining level-headed in moments of crisis, Mr. Lew is generally respected on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, so his confirmation wasn’t expected to be particularly bruising.
But Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he will lead a charge to try to block Mr. Lew’s prospective nomination to become Treasury secretary.
Mr. Obama is expected to announce Thursday his decision to tap Mr. Lew to take over for outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
Mr. Sessions told The Washington Times that Mr. Lew blatantly misled Congress about administration plans to reduce the national debt and “must never be secretary of Treasury.”
Two years ago, while serving as Mr. Obama’s budget director, Mr. Lew told Congress that the president’s budget, which he had crafted, would not add to the national debt.
Mr. Sessions called the claim so “outrageous and false” that it alone should disqualify Mr. Lew from the key Cabinet post.
The Senate Finance Committee will hold the hearings, so Mr. Sessions will not have a chance to question Mr. Lew directly. Instead, according to Senate Republican aides, he plans to voice his concerns about the nomination if and when it hits the floor.
The timing of the Treasury nomination is critical because Mr. Lew is expected to play a central role in several budget debates.
Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling by late February or early March or face defaulting on its debts. But brinkmanship over the last debt-ceiling debate in 2011 led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, and the major credit ratings agencies have warned that another downgrade is possible this spring.
Undaunted, Republicans are gearing up for a major battle over the increasing the nation’s borrowing limit as a way to extract concessions from Democrats on spending cuts.
Congress and the Obama administration face another deadline for budget cuts. The fiscal cliff deal only served to delay by two months an automatic “sequestration” agreed to in an earlier deficit-and-debt deal, which would result in across-the-board spending cuts to defense and domestic programs.