Senate readies for blizzard of confirmation battles

Senate readies for blizzard of confirmation battles
© Getty Images

The Senate will begin a blizzard of confirmation hearings Tuesday for Donald Trump’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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 DurbinDurbin: ‘No reason’ for people to remember Kavanaugh at party accuser describes Durbin: Kavanaugh's accuser is not being treated respectfully Grassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap 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 SessionsTrump distances himself from Rosenstein by saying Sessions hired him Gowdy: Declassified documents unlikely to change anyone's mind on Russia investigation Pompeo on Rosenstein bombshell: Maybe you just ought to find something else to do if you can't be on the team 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 SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation 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 CardinOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment More Dems come out in public opposition to Kavanaugh 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 McConnellGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Kavanaugh accuser set to testify Thursday McConnell told Trump criticism of Kavanaugh accuser isn't helpful: report 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 HatchDems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Judiciary Dems say GOP treating Kavanaugh accuser worse than Anita Hill 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 CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters 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.