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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 TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA 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 DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes 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 SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand 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 SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia 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 CardinWashington puts Ethiopia's human rights abusers on notice Overnight Defense: Mattis vows Dreamers in military won't be deported | Pentagon unsure if military parade will be in Washington | Dem bill would block funds for parade Dems introduce bills to block funds for Trump's proposed parade 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 McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure 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 HatchOvernight Finance: NAFTA defenders dig in | Tech pushes Treasury to fight EU on taxes | AT&T faces setback in merger trial | Dems make new case against Trump tax law | Trump fuels fight over gas tax What sort of senator will Mitt Romney be? Not a backbencher, even day one Lawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves 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 CorkerCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Drama surrounding Shulkin — what is the future of VA health care? Blackburn pushes back on potential Corker bid: 'I'm going to win' 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.