Senate readies for blizzard of confirmation battles

Senate readies for blizzard of confirmation battles
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The Senate will begin a blizzard of confirmation hearings Tuesday for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE’s prospective Cabinet as Republicans race to get members of the president-elect’s team in place on day one of his administration.

The fast-tracking of nominees is frustrating Democrats, who want to use the hearings to press Trump’s team on a host of issues.

It has also drawn criticism from the federal Government Ethics Office, which in a letter to Democrats on Saturday argued that the confirmation process has become so rushed, it is difficult to do ethics probes.

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Democrats argue the picks deserve extra scrutiny because of the massive wealth of several nominees. Trump’s Cabinet in total is worth more than a third of American households. 

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinLive coverage: FBI chief, Justice IG testify on critical report Hugh Hewitt to Trump: 'It is 100 percent wrong to separate border-crossing families' Opioid treatment plans must include a trauma-informed approach MORE (Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, argued Trump is creating a “room full of billionaires” for his Cabinet.

Democrats are focusing their attacks on eight nominees, three of whom come to Capitol Hill this week: Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education secretary; Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMadeleine Albright slams Trump over immigration New Hampshire GOP gov: I won’t send National Guard troops to ‘separate families’ Overnight Defense: States pull National Guard troops over family separation policy | Senators question pick for Afghan commander | US leaves UN Human Rights Council MORE (R-Ala.), who has been nominated to be attorney general; and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice to be secretary of State.

“Our caucus ... thinks it’s absolutely essential that the U.S. Senate has a chance to appropriately vet the nominees, and the American people deserve to hear their views and qualifications in public hearings,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan Selling government assets would be a responsible move in infrastructure deal Ignore the naysayers trying to disrupt US diplomacy with North Korea MORE (N.Y.) said last week.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon; John Kelly, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security; Elaine Chao, his nominee to be Transportation secretary; Ben Carson, his pick for Housing and Urban Development; Wilbur Ross, his pick to Commerce secretary; and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), his pick to lead the CIA, are also all scheduled to get confirmation hearings this week.

Blocking any of these nominees is unlikely, since the GOP needs just 50 votes to win a confirmation battle. Democrats changed the filibuster rules for nominations when they controlled the Senate, easing the process.

Instead, Democrats will hope to weaken various nominees politically, with an eye toward slowing Trump’s agenda.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCommunity development impact remains clear with NMTC post-tax reform Dem sen: ‘Difficult to understand’ Trump’s treatment of allies Dem sen: No military option in North Korea ‘without extreme risks’ MORE (D-Md.), who met with Tillerson this week, predicted Democrats will dig in on the former Exxon Mobile CEO’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as his position on climate change.

“I think you’re going to find that there are going to be areas of concern that members on the Democratic side are going to want to highlight,” he said. “His relationships in Russia and some of the things he did at Exxon Mobile.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to start Tillerson’s hearing on Wednesday, with another day of questions possible for Thursday.

Sessions’s hearing will start on Tuesday, while DeVos is also scheduled for Wednesday.

Democrats are also bemoaning what they argue is a schedule “crunch” for nominees.

“It shouldn’t be the case that six hearings ... occur all on the same day, and on the same day as a potential vote-a-rama, that is mostly unprecedented in the modern era of Cabinet considerations, happening only once in history,” Schumer said. “It is not the standard.”

Senators are tentatively expected to start what’s known as a vote-a-rama on Wednesday as they work to pass ObamaCare repeal guidelines as part of a budgetary bill. Lawmakers can use the fast-paced marathon session to force a vote on dozens of amendments, potentially trapping senators on the floor for hours. 

Republicans are dismissing the Democratic complaints about the schedule.

They note that a Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed seven of President Obama’s nominees on the first day of his administration in 2009.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWarren on family separation policy: Trump is ‘taking America to a dark and ugly place’ Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis Schumer rejects GOP proposal to address border crisis MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters that he hopes the Senate can clear Trump’s national security team on the first day of his administration.

“I think it would be great if the Democrats would understand that particularly with regard to the national security team, the secretary of Defense, CIA, Homeland Security, it would make a lot of sense to have those folks in place on day one,” he said.

Asked about the Democrats’ objections to the schedule, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Overnight Defense: States pull National Guard troops over family separation policy | Senators question pick for Afghan commander | US leaves UN Human Rights Council Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the Finance Committee, called it “two-bit politics.”

“Oh, give me a break,” he said. “That happens all the time.”

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump angers biz groups with 0B tariff threat 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Trump’s midterm suicide plan: Make children cry and mothers mad MORE (R-Tenn.) said Democratic pressure on Trump nominees to turn over their tax returns is linked to frustration over Trump’s election. Trump refused to make his tax returns public in the campaign, breaking decades of precedent for presidential candidates.

“This tax return business is about the presidential election, because the president-elect did not put forth his tax returns,” Corker said. “Some will make an issue out of that during the committee hearing, and that's fine.”

But the letter from the ethics office is likely to be used by Democrats to bolster their arguments — and their attacks.

“I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process,” Walter Shaub, Jr., the ethics office director, wrote in the letter.