President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks continued to come under strong criticism, raising speculation that Senate Republicans’ plans to quickly get his full team in place shortly after the inaugural are in jeopardy.
Lawmakers said Trump’s picks to head the Defense and Homeland Security departments remain among the national security team members likely to be approved soon after his swearing-in. But others whom the GOP wanted to move quickly are too bogged down in controversies to be put to a fast vote, they said.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick to head the State Department, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), his choice to serve as attorney general, drew sharp questions during lengthy confirmation hearings Jan. 11.
Meanwhile, confirmation hearings were pushed back for Trump’s picks to head the Labor, Commerce, Education, and Health and Human Services departments.
The developments put at risk Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) plan to have six or seven nominees approved shortly after Trump takes office in order to ensure he has a core team in place. McConnell now is saying he wants to at least get the top national security members—including the head of the Central Intelligence Agency—in place Jan. 20.
Democrats have called for the nominees to clear ethics investigations and produce disclosure documents before they can advance in committee. McConnell has downplayed those demands, but some Republican committee chairmen also are holding off hearings and votes until background materials are presented.
Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said the panel may approve within days the nomination of Elaine Chao, former Labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to head the Transportation Department.
The hearing for Chao indicated she is well on her way to being confirmed for another post in the executive branch, Thune said, leaving open the possibility of confirmation on Jan. 20. Chao also previously served as deputy Transportation secretary.
“I would predict that she will be teed up and ready for a vote on the day the president is sworn in,” Thune said of Chao, who is also McConnell’s wife.
Hearings are planned Jan. 12 at the Armed Services Committee for Ret. Gen. James Mattis to head the Pentagon and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) to head the CIA. Both Republicans and Democrats said they expect them to be easily confirmed along with Gen. Mike Kelly to serve as secretary of Homeland Security.
Chao’s hearing, however, stood in sharp contrast to those for Sessions and Tillerson. At the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) attacked Sessions’s record opposing the Violence Against Women Act, hate crimes legislation and immigration reforms.
Tillerson faced questions at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing over whether his business relationship with Russian leaders during his tenure as ExxonMobil CEO would permit him to adequately represent U.S. interests, while his refusal to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal drew strong criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) separately questioned Tillerson’s testimony that Exxon didn’t lobby against sanctions on Iran, even though lobbying disclosure reports indicate it did. He said he’s concerned about reports suggesting that the company circumvented the sanctions law by working through a European subsidiary. Schumer said the prospect that the new administration won’t support existing or recently proposed sanctions on Russia is problematic.
“If Mr. Tillerson cannot even say that he will support the existing sanctions, what kind of secretary of state will he be?” Schumer said on the floor. “I’m worried.”
While those hearings continue, many others are on the back burner. Thune said the committee canceled a Jan. 12 hearing for Commerce pick Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, because he hadn’t yet met the panel’s requirements.
“We pushed that back,” Thune told reporters. “He didn’t have all his stuff in. We’ll wait until that happens.”
Aides said a hearing for Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick to head the Labor Department, now may not occur until February. Puzder, chairman of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, was scheduled to appear before the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Jan. 17. But the session was put off to instead accommodate a hearing on Education Secretary pick Betsy DeVos, whose own hearing had been pushed from the week of Jan. 9.
Puzder, a billionaire, is said to have not completed his own paperwork required for his confirmation but also has become embroiled in controversies including allegations of abuse brought by his ex-wife. The HELP Committee hasn’t announced a new date for his hearing.
Meanwhile, a HELP hearing planned on the nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to serve as HHS secretary also was moved to Jan. 18. Price’s nomination has generated opposition from Democrats, who said they are concerned about his support for privatizing Medicare and raised concerns about reports he heavily traded health-care stocks while serving on House panels with jurisdiction over the industry.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Republican leadership team, took issue with Democrats’ demands that the nominees have their disclosure forms filed before committees can hold hearings. But he said all of the requirements have to be met before they can clear the Senate.
“I think some of these reports are more complicated than they have been in the past,” Blunt said, referring to the billionaire status of many of the nominees. “But I think everything will be in by the time of the vote.”
One bright spot in the confirmation process came Jan. 11 when Democrats praised Trump’s decision to nominate David Shulkin to serve as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Shulkin has served as undersecretary of health at the VA in the Obama administration.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats said Shulkin’s experience at the VA as well as in private medical centers will serve him well in the post.
“From his success as a physician and leader at the Beth Israel Medical Center to the University of Pennsylvania Health System and beyond, Dr. Shulkin is striving to ensure that every veteran receives high-quality and timely care, all benefits are settled in an expedient and transparent manner and no veteran is forced to sleep on the street,” Pelosi said.
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