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Dems seek new targets post-DeVos

Dems seek new targets post-DeVos
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats, who nearly derailed President Trump’s nominee to lead the Education Department, are now setting their sights on other Cabinet picks. 

They plan to double down on their guerrilla tactics against other controversial nominees, beginning with a member of the upper chamber, Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBiden fills immigration court with Trump hires Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report Ex-Sen. Doug Jones joins law and lobbying firm Arent Fox MORE (R-Ala.).

While Democrats failed to sink Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who won confirmation Tuesday with a historic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence — they contend the tight battle has re-energized their party. 

For the first time since Trump took office, Democrats managed to pick off Republicans on a close roll call, as Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan Trump drama divides GOP, muddling message MORE (Alaska) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Manchin touts rating as 'most bipartisan senator' MORE (Maine) voted against DeVos.

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Democrats conducted an all-night debate on the floor Monday into Tuesday on DeVos and were hinting that another one would occur Tuesday evening to protest Sessions, who has been criticized over allegations that he made racist comments three decades ago while a U.S. attorney for Alabama.

“There’s a great deal of interest in Jeff Sessions, so we’ll see how that goes,” said Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairwoman Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - House GOP drama intensifies; BIden sets new vax goal Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Can Cheney defy the odds and survive again? MORE (Mich.).

Republicans say they are very confident that Trump is going to get all his Cabinet nominees approved. GOP lawmakers, who were often dubbed “obstructionists” during the Obama administration, are now using the label to describe Democrats. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAssaults on Roe v Wade increasing Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said, “This level of obstruction at the beginning of an administration is really record-setting in a very unfortunate way. “

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Republican seeks to use Obama energy policies to criticize Biden  EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases MORE (R-Wyo.), one of McConnell’s deputies, called Democrats “sore losers” and said they are “just dragging their feet and pandering to their base.”

But Stabenow said that delaying votes on DeVos and other nominees provided more time to spotlight their records and build opposition. 

“Republicans wanted to move her nomination and others through the second week in January. Instead it’s [now] the second week in February,” she noted. “We gave people time to express themselves.”

Democrats may force Republicans to use all the procedural time required by Senate rules to process Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s nominees to serve as secretaries of Health and Human Services and the Treasury, respectively. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.) declined to commit to Democrats pulling more all-nighters, telling reporters to “stay tuned.” 

He also defended their strategy on DeVos and predicted more of the same for Sessions and Price: “We’re going to have long debates on Sessions and we’re going to have debates on Price.”

The tactics have frustrated Republicans, who say they are willing to keep the Senate in session late at night and into the weekend to confirm Trump’s nominees on schedule.

“Another hissy fit?” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel MORE (R-Texas) said of the Democratic game plan. On Monday he acknowledged to reporters that the delays of Trump’s nominees are slowing down the Republican agenda, adding he thinks it is a deliberate strategy.

DeVos was the fifth member of Trump’s Cabinet to win confirmation. President Obama had 12 of his Cabinet picks approved at about this point in his first term.

The White House has stepped up its rhetoric in response. White House press secretary Sean Spicer last week panned the Democrats’ maneuvers as “childish” after lawmakers boycotted a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee to delay votes on Price and Mnuchin.

Democrats feel their strategy has been rewarded by an outpouring of public support. They point to tens of thousands of phone calls protesting DeVos’s nomination that tied up Senate phone lines for days. 

Republican lawmakers took to Twitter this week to apologize for busy phone lines and to suggest alternative ways for constituents to get in touch with them. One Republican senator speaking on background expressed relief over DeVos’s confirmation because it would finally open up his phones for other business.

The coordinated blitz against DeVos shows the clout of teachers unions, though Republicans were quick to note they did win the 51-50 vote, which was the first time a vice president broke a tie on a Cabinet nominee. 

Senate Democrats huddled at their weekly lunch meeting Tuesday, where there was strong opposition to Price and Sessions. 

“There’s too much wrong with Sessions,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity. The senator said while many lawmakers want to take a stand against Price as well, Sessions raises bigger concerns.

Dozens of liberal advocacy groups have joined the fight against the nominee because his duty as attorney general to enforce federal law cuts across all issues, including immigration, civil rights, women’s rights, voter rights and the environment.

However, not one Republican has publicly said he or she won’t vote for Sessions. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden's elitist work-family policy won't work for most families The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders MORE (D-W.Va.) — who is facing reelection next year — has said he will back Sessions.

Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinIf you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, started the marathon debate on Sessions by questioning his independence after he played the role of a “stalwart campaign advocate” for Trump.

She noted that Sessions once testified before Congress that he thought the Voting Rights Act was “intrusive.” On the subject of reproductive rights, Feinstein pointed out that Sessions in 2015 voted for legislation that would place a nationwide ban on abortion after 20 weeks.

She said her office received 114,000 calls and emails on his nomination, with 98 percent stating opposition.

The explosion of public reaction to DeVos’s nomination last week caught some Democrats by surprise. While they acknowledged the role that teachers unions played in organizing people, they described the flood of calls and emails and public discussion as largely “organic.”

“It is spectacular. I don’t recall any other time since I’ve been a senator where the input has been this significant, this massive,” said Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinSenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap House Dems to unveil drug pricing measure ahead of Biden package World passes 3 million coronavirus deaths MORE (D-Wis.), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“This was not driven by us,” said Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemings asked about Senate run after sparring with Jordan on police funding Republicans fret over divisive candidates Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP MORE (D-Mo.), who is up for reelection in 2018. “This was driven by our phones being overwhelmed and people showing up outside everybody’s offices.”

“There’s a misconception that we’re sitting around with Schumer and [George] Soros and Barbara Streisand orchestrating the resistance,” joked a Democratic senator speaking on background.

Democratic lawmakers are trying to stoke the same fury over Sessions, Price and other nominees but admitted they are unsure whether any Republicans will defect. 

The battles over Cabinet nominees could be just a warm-up for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Unlike the Cabinet selections, Gorsuch will likely have to clear a 60-vote threshold. McConnell has repeatedly expressed confidence that Gorsuch will be confirmed.  

The outcry over DeVos was so loud, Democrats say, because her congressional testimony was so shaky. They say she failed to demonstrate a clear understanding of the difference between the educational concepts of proficiency and growth, and cited possible attack by grizzly bears as a reason to have guns at schools.

Her answers quickly became fodder for late-night talk and comedy shows, such as “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Saturday Night Live.”

 In addition to Sessions, Democrats are setting their sights on Price; Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and Andrew Puzder, who has been tapped to lead the Labor Department.

Democrats say they will play up Price’s past support for cutting the growth of Medicare and a privileged offer he received to buy a biomedical stock. They say he lied to the Finance Committee about whether he received a special offer, though Republicans have downplayed it as a manufactured issue.

Democrats say they may have another opportunity to split Republicans over Puzder, a fast-food chain CEO who has admitted to employing an undocumented immigrant to clean his house and having to later pay back taxes on the worker.

Four Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — Collins, Murkowski, and Sens. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonLoeffler group targets Democrats with billboards around baseball stadium Warnock raises nearly M since January victory Five big takeaways on Georgia's new election law MORE (Ga.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE (S.C.) — declined to comment to CNN Tuesday on how they would vote on him. Isakson and Collins, however, warned that that does not mean they are inclined to vote against him.  

Jordain Carney contributed.