GOP to Push Early Cabinet Confirmations Despite Criticisms: McConnell

By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yielded to Democratic demands to back off from a marathon series of hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks Jan. 11 but still said he plans to have a half-dozen of them confirmed the day Trump takes office and many more soon afterward.

McConnell agreed to ratchet back from six to three the hearings that the Senate will hold on key Cabinet jobs on the same day that lawmakers work on the floor to finish the fiscal year 2017 budget resolution. But at least five others are still are scheduled for Jan. 12 even as many of the nominees have yet to forward required financial disclosure paperwork and other documents to the Senate.

“We are in the process of having all of the hearings as rapidly as we can,” McConnell said even as negotiations with Democrats on the confirmation process continued. “It is still my hope that regardless of the hearing schedule, some of which have been moved slightly, we will be in a position to confirm a significant number of [Trump’s] nominees on day one. In particular, the national security team: We hope to get most of it, if not all of it, in place on day one.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats gained some ground when McConnell put off some hearings but said they still are appealing to Trump himself to pressure Republicans to back off from their plans and allow hearings to proceed only after the candidates complete their FBI background checks and forward the typical materials required for Cabinet heads.

Schumer said Trump recently convinced House Republican leaders to back off plans to gut the Office of Government Ethics, which plays a key role in the confirmation process.

But Schumer also signaled that Democrats likely won’t oppose McConnell’s bid to confirm Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary-designate John Kelly, and Central Intelligence Agency Director-designate Mike Pompeo on Inauguration Day.

“They need all of their conflict of interest papers and FBI reports and a full hearing where they can be asked a lot of questions,” Schumer told reporters of nominees. “But it is true [that] on our list of the eight or nine that we have said cause us the most trouble, General Mattis was not on there, Kelly was not on there, and Pompeo was not on there.”

Security Team Seen Advancing

Schumer spoke as Senate committees began laying the groundwork to advance the Mattis and Kelly nominations as well as that of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general.

The Armed Services Committee Jan. 10 took up the matter of a waiver required for Mattis to serve at the Pentagon, as current law requires a seven-year separation from the military before an individual can serve in the civilian post. Democrats have signaled they don’t oppose the waiver, and the committee remains on schedule to consider the Mattis nomination itself on Jan. 12.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a Jan. 10 hearing on Kelly’s nomination.

More controversial is the Sessions nomination that Judiciary took up Jan. 10. Democrats raised concerns about the senator’s record on immigration, voting rights and abortion, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus plan to testify against the nomination at a Jan. 11 hearing. But lawmakers still said they expect Sessions to be confirmed.

The Jan. 11 hearings that McConnell agreed to put off included one at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to head the Education Department. That hearing now is scheduled for the following week. Also moved to Jan. 12 were two sessions of the Intelligence Committee on the Pompeo nomination.

Others still are planned for Jan. 11, including for Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, to serve as secretary of transportation, and Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state.

Besides those for Mattis and Pompeo, the Senate still is holding hearings Jan. 12 on Tillerson, Wilbur Ross to serve as secretary of commerce, and Ben Carson to head Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile, McConnell is said to be planning many more hearings to quickly follow. But Schumer said the hearing at HELP for DeVos—one of the billionaires chosen by Trump to serve in the Cabinet—shouldn’t happen if she doesn’t comply with all the Senate background requirements.

“It’s rumored that she owns over 600 companies. And we don’t have her ethics agreement yet,” Schumer said.

Schumer also said that there still isn’t an FBI background check completed even though Tillerson’s hearing is set to begin shortly. He said that’s of particular concern amid reports that Exxon Mobil, where Tillerson has served as president and CEO, may have profited by doing business with Iran.

“This is serious,” Schumer said. “It raises an important question: Did Mr. Tillerson direct his company to deal with a state sponsor of terrorism in order to simply line the company’s pockets? These are questions that Rex Tillerson must answer at his hearing. He can’t duck them. He can’t avoid them. They’re questions the American people need answers for.”

Non-Hearing Hearings?

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she, Schumer and other Democrats wrote to Trump urging support for their call that all nominees have their ethics paperwork complete before they appear before relevant committees.

"[W]e hope he will urge Senate Republicans to stop cutting corners, to stop rushing, and give these nominees the ethics scrutiny people across the country expect,” Murray said. “President-elect Trump led the retreat when House Republicans tried to eliminate their independent ethics office. I am hopeful that he will pull Senate Republicans back from the same right now.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Democrats are starting their own series of “public forums” to draw attention to the nominees’ records. She said the first would be a session featuring employees of Labor Secretary-designate Andrew Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants.

“Since the committee chairs do not wish them to testify at the nomination hearings, we will provide a forum for them to do that,” Stabenow said.

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

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