Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) plan to quickly confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks is drawing sharp criticism from Democrats, who said they are being given little time to examine the nominees’ qualifications and being denied access to standard background reports typically seen before nominees are put to a vote.
McConnell has scheduled multiple hearings for Trump’s Cabinet choices on Jan. 11, the same day that the Senate is expected to engage in an all-day vote-a-rama on the fiscal year 2017 budget. Democrats charged that many lawmakers will have little time to attend those hearings and adequately question Trump’s picks amid floor votes.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also questioned McConnell’s plan to advance many of the nominees, even though the Senate has yet to receive the background materials typically required of Cabinet officials.
“The minority only has ethics agreements in for four of the nominees so far,” Schumer said Jan. 5, as more than a half-dozen Senate committees continued to make preparations for hearings set to begin Jan. 10. “We have financial disclosure forms from four of the nominees so far. We only have tax returns from four of the nominees so far. And none of our committees have been notified that any nominee’s FBI background check has been fully completed.”
McConnell said he’s intent on confirming nominees beginning on Inauguration Day to ensure that Trump has key personnel in place at the start of his administration. In particular, the Republican leader said Jan. 4, he wants Trump’s national security team in place as soon as possible.
But Schumer said he wants to negotiate a plan with McConnell that will permit senators to take more time to examine the backgrounds of many of the nominees. He said many of them are billionaires and could present many conflicts of interest.
In particular, he and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said they have concerns that Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s choice to serve as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, may have violated ethics rules by engaging in heavy trading of health-care company stocks while sponsoring many bills affecting the industry.
“They’re going to hold incredibly powerful positions for potentially the next four years,” Schumer said. “To spend an extra day or two on each nominee, if it takes a few weeks, several weeks, to get through them all in order to carefully consider all of their nominations, that’s certainly worth it to the American people, and, I would argue, to the new administration.”
Schumer said he already met with McConnell to discuss how the Senate will carry out its advise-and-consent role as the Trump Cabinet nominees are brought forward. The GOP plans to begin the hearings Jan. 10 at Judiciary to examine the qualifications of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general.
A second hearing on that nomination is planned Jan. 11—but in addition, McConnell has scheduled hearings the same day for other top nominees at the Select Intelligence Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding two days of hearings related to the nomination of Ret. Gen. James Mattis to serve as Defense secretary.
Schumer says some senators who serve on more than one of those committees have complained about scheduling the hearings on the same day—including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), now the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and a senior member of the Intelligence panel. The latter committee plans to meet to discuss the qualifications of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Both nominees in a single day, that is unfair, not only to [Feinstein] with her great knowledge but to the American people,” Schumer said. “Each member deserves plenty of time to question each nominee, and, if questions remain, they should be brought back for a second day of hearings.”
Adding to Democrats’ frustration, Schumer said, is the fact that lawmakers expect to be shuttling back and forth the same day to the Senate floor for the vote-a-rama on the budget, the initial vehicle Republicans are using in their effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Some said they view the scheduling as intended to make them unavailable to ask extended questions of the Trump nominees.
The potentially all-day session will require senators to take dozens and dozens of votes on amendments.
“That is mostly unprecedented in the modern era of Cabinet considerations, happening only once in history. That’s not the standard. But right now that’s the case on Jan. 11,” Schumer said.
Schumer’s office said the required Senate financial information so far has only been received from Sessions, Pompeo, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson and former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, Trump’s choice to head the Small Business Administration.
Meanwhile, the required ethics information has only been received by Sessions, Pompeo, Tillerson and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it said. McConnell’s office declined to confirm the list.
Schumer said the nomination of Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as well as other nominees of “enormous wealth” are making the review process more difficult,
“These nominees have potential conflict-of-interest challenges of epic proportions,” Schumer said. “At the very least they owe the American people the standard paperwork, and, in fact, we believe many of these nominees, given their financial holdings, should go one step further and provide their tax returns.”
Separately, Schumer, Wyden, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) held a press conference to call for an ethics investigation into Price’s investments and trades of health-care stocks while sitting on the House Ways and Means Committee and other panels overseeing the industry.
“The questions are serious enough that it raises this to a new level that we believe an investigation must occur, so that members—Republicans and Democrats—are confident that if this nomination moves forward, they’re voting for someone that they clearly have the information on that we do not have today,” said Murray, who with Wyden are the ranking members of the Senate committees that will hold hearings on Price’s nomination.
Democrats said they want the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Price’s activities. Earlier in the week, House Republicans planned to gut the office but dropped the plan amid criticism—from both Democrats and Trump.
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