Committees Set to Approve More Trump Cabinet Picks

By Nancy Ognanovich

Several of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks are expected to be approved in committee early Jan. 24, setting the stage for their nominations to then begin moving to the Senate floor during the next week.

The Judiciary Committee is on track to approve Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is likely to back the nominations of Elaine Chao to serve as Transportation secretary and Wilbur Ross to be Commerce secretary.

In addition, the Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee is likely to approve the nomination of Ben Carson to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee announced it is meeting to vote on the nominations of Ryan Zinke to be Interior secretary and Rick Perry to serve as Energy secretary.

Action on those nominees—following the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s approval of Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of State Jan. 23—will put seven more Cabinet heads in the queue for confirmation soon. However, the timing for the consideration of many of them still is uncertain as both Senate Republicans and Democrats plan to depart Jan. 25 for out-of-town policy retreats and then not vote again until the week of Jan. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said early action on these and other nominees is critical to ensure Trump has his team in place as he undertakes important policy decisions and deals with security threats. At present, the Senate has only confirmed Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

McConnell urged the Senate to move others quickly, saying that would be one way “to begin binding our national wounds.”

“One way to begin moving forward is by proceeding with confirmations without delay, especially when it comes to key national and economic security nominees,” McConnell said.

Senate Democratic leaders subsequently agreed to expedite a debate and vote on the nomination of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. After yielding back debate time, Democrats joined Republicans in voting Jan. 23 to confirm him to head the agency.

Tillerson Approved in Committee

Mattis and Kelly were approved shortly after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. However, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) withheld consent to move other nominees in the hours after the swearing-in, saying Democrats want more time to examine the credentials and financial backgrounds of many of the nominees. Schumer agreed to begin debate on Pompeo but only have a final vote on the nomination after the weekend.

Schumer and other Democrats objected to a packed hearing schedule during the previous two weeks that they said gave lawmakers little time to question Cabinet nominees. Also drawing criticism is the absence in some cases of completed financial disclosure paperwork and ethics agreements. Though McConnell rejected Schumer’s calls for more hearings for many nominees, Democrats said they will force full debates on the floor in order to better examine the backgrounds of the Cabinet picks.

Republican leaders now are moving more of the nominees out of committee. McConnell scheduled simultaneous business meetings at three committees early Jan. 24 where Sessions, Chao, Ross and Carson are expected to be approved. The sessions all are set to occur at 10 a.m. The meeting for Zinke and Perry is at 9:30 a.m.

In addition, McConnell scheduled hearings for many of Trump’s other nominees the same day.

The Finance Committee will meet early in the day to consider the nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services. Both the Budget and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees have hearings scheduled on the nomination of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to be head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. And the Small Business Committee has a hearing scheduled on the nomination of Linda McMahon to lead the Small Business Administration.

The nomination of Tillerson, the long-time chairman of ExxonMobil, to serve as the nation’s top diplomat was approved after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other Senate Russia “hawks” dropped their opposition to the controversial pick. The Foreign Relations Committee’s vote to approve him was on a party-line vote of 11-10.

“Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy,” Rubio said in announcing he wouldn’t try to stop the nomination. “Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination in committee and in the full Senate.”

But Democrats said they still oppose the nominee, with committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) voicing continued concern about Tillerson’s business dealings with Russia and his endorsement of military force rather than diplomacy to deal with potential crises. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said Tillerson still should recuse himself from matters involving ExxonMobil’s operations in Russia.

Chao, Carson Seen Advancing

Democrats are similarly expected to withhold their support for Sessions in committee and are preparing for lengthy debates on the floor. But the debates on Tillerson and Sessions are expected to be delayed until the week of Jan. 30.

Instead, the nominees said to be the most likely to be put to a vote before the parties’ policy retreats that begin Jan. 25 are Chao and Carson, whose nominations are among the least controversial.

Schumer defended Democrats’ plans on the Senate floor, saying they continue to have genuine concerns about the nominees’ qualifications and ethical standards.

“[T]hey will have tremendous power over the lives of average Americans,” Schumer said. “A few extra days to examine and explore what they believe, to make sure that they don’t have conflicts of interest? Who wouldn’t be for that? Unless they don’t want the facts to come out. So we’re not stalling nominations. This isn’t sport. This is serious stuff.”

“They deserve a few days of careful vetting,” Schumer continued. “It should not be all rushed in a day, hurried debate, hurry through in the dark of night, no way. We’re going to use whatever abilities we have here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.