Inaugural Lightning Round: McConnell Lines Up Cabinet Nominees

By Nancy Ognanovich

Dec. 5 — The Senate could confirm several of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks in the hours after his inauguration Jan. 20 in order to ensure the new president has his team in place quickly, a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

McConnell may try to move seven or more of Trump’s nominees to head the federal agencies after his swearing-in, a move that would mirror what occurred during the Obama administration, spokesman Don Stewart said.

“It’s commonplace to do multiple nominees Day One,” Stewart told Bloomberg BNA. “We did that for Obama, so I expect there will be similar cooperation for Trump.”

Early confirmation of some Cabinet picks would better enable Trump to pursue his 100-day agenda, including the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and development of a plan to promote infrastructure projects. New agency heads also could have an early say in developing next year’s budget.

The scenario McConnell wants to pursue would require hearings on Trump’s picks to begin soon after the 115th Congress convenes Jan. 3, Stewart said.

“We had hearings on the secretaries-designate in January before Inauguration Day,” Stewart said of practices in previous Congresses.

A White House spokesman said Democrats will have to weigh how they want to proceed on the nominations, but said Republicans also wrongly delayed action on many of Obama’s later picks, such as that of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In particular, the Judiciary Committee has repeatedly delayed or blocked Obama’s nominees, including that of Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, spokesman Josh Earnest said.

"[I]t’s clear that the process hasn’t just been infected, but they’ve got a full-blown fever of partisanship,” Earnest said.

Eight on ‘Day One’?

Stewart indicated Republicans want to use the action seen at the start of Obama’s first term to put pressure on Democrats to allow many of Trump’s picks to also be confirmed early on.

“We did seven Cabinet nominees on Obama’s first day,” Stewart said. “We did 14 within the first 12 days.”

In addition to the seven nominees, Stewart said Obama asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush administration Cabinet member, to stay on.

“We had eight in place on his first day, including one holdover,” Stewart said. “Within two weeks, basically, everyone was in place. That was the most recent historic norm.”

Stewart didn’t specify which nominations McConnell will try to move first, but they are expected to be among the less controversial ones, such as that of Elaine Chao to serve as secretary of transportation. The nomination of Chao, who previously led the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration and is also McConnell’s wife, has not generated much criticism.

Similarly, McConnell may try to quickly confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a long-serving member, to serve as attorney general.

Democrats Have Questions

Senate Democrats already are questioning the qualifications of many Trump Cabinet picks.

Among others, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Senate minority leader, said he has “serious concerns” about Trump’s recent nomination of neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson to serve as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Someone who is as anti-government as him is a strange fit for housing secretary, to say the least,” Schumer said. “As he moves through the confirmation process, Americans deserve to know that their potential HUD secretary is well versed in housing policy and has a vision for federal housing programs that meets the needs of Americans across the country, and seeks to provide access to those that we haven’t reached already.”

Many of Obama’s Cabinet nominees were quickly approved for a reason, a senior Democratic aide said.

“President Obama put forward nominees that were deeply qualified, committed to following through on his campaign promises, and free of conflicts of interest,” the aide said. “The president-elect has chosen to go in the complete opposite direction, so it’s important that their records receive a thorough vetting before they’re confirmed to these important posts.”

Tax Returns Remain Issue

While many Obama nominees were easily confirmed, Stewart acknowledged that the administration was forced to withdraw the nomination of others, including that of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to serve as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services after he was found to have not paid $140,000 in back taxes.

Similarly, Obama’s pick to serve as the White House performance officer also withdrew amid a dispute over unpaid taxes. As a result, some Obama nominees were not approved for a number of weeks, he said.

Democrats said they have concerns about the tax and financial affairs of many of Trump’s picks, including billionaire investor Wilbur Ross to serve as commerce secretary and former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin to serve as treasury secretary.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member of the Finance Committee, and other Democrats recently said that they want to try to amend the Senate rules soon after the start of the 115th Congress to require all Cabinet nominees to have to submit their tax returns as part of the confirmation process. At present, only the Finance, Budget, and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees require nominees appearing before those panels to submit them, they said.

“Government officials don’t get a free pass to flout our tax laws, abuse loopholes or hide money in shelters,” Wyden said. “The president-elect’s top officials are required to resolve conflicts of interest, and I believe they ought to be able to prove they follow the nation’s tax laws just like everybody else.”

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