Next Up for Senate Debate: Trump’s Justice, Treasury, HHS Nominees

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By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate Republicans began a major push to get President Donald Trump’s nominees for the Justice, Treasury, and Health and Human Services departments confirmed the week of Feb. 6.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) undertook the first procedural moves to set the stage for the Senate to consider the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as Trump’s attorney general. The Republican leader then also began laying the groundwork for the Senate to later take up the nominations of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to serve as HHS secretary and Steven Mnuchin to head Treasury.

McConnell filed cloture Feb. 2 on the nominations of all three Cabinet picks over the objections of most Democrats, who have raised strong concerns about the candidates’ policy stances and, in some cases, ethics controversies. Democrats had insufficient votes to block McConnell’s motions to begin the process needed to bring them up on the floor.

McConnell’s moves come after the Senate the previous day finished work confirming Trump’s national security team, six top officials that include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The next three Cabinet officials will play a large role in pushing Republicans’ domestic agenda, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the overhaul of the U.S. tax code.

But McConnell’s plans to advance the nominees prior to the Presidents Day recess first require him to confirm Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education pick, over the objections of all Democrats and two Republicans. Senate aides said a cloture vote on the DeVos nomination now is set for early Feb. 3, with final action possible on Feb. 6.

McConnell is counting on the vote of Sessions to help him secure the 51 votes he needs to make up for the loss of support from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Vice President Mike Pence also may be needed to break a tie vote, aides said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy, blamed Democrats for any delays in filling the Cabinet and said they will “pay a price” if they delay or slow-walk the nominees.

"[W]hat we are seeing is a hostile transition of power, mindless obstruction, foot dragging and delay for delay’s sake,” Cornyn said. “Let me remind them once again, the American people voted on Nov. 8 and chose a president who has the authority to nominate the people he sees fit to serve on his Cabinet. We can’t afford to let this administration operate with one hand tied behind its back for the foreseeable future.”

Sessions Debate Week of Feb. 6

McConnell’s actions to file cloture simultaneously on all three nominees capped a week of tension between Senate Republicans and Democrats over the handling of Trump’s nominees, particularly the expedited schedule to report many of them from committee before senators were satisfied that nominees had adequately responded to questions about their policies and backgrounds.

A few hours before McConnell’s action on the floor, Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee overcame Democrats’ boycott of a meeting to report the nomination of Scott Pruitt to serve as Environmental Protection Agency administrator by suspending the panel’s rules that require some Democrats to be present for such an action to occur.

Republicans on the Finance Committee Feb. 1 similarly suspended the panel’s rules to report Price and Mnuchin from committee. Sessions was approved on a party-line vote at the Judiciary Committee the same day.

With those and other committee actions, McConnell now has 10 new nominees ready to schedule for confirmation votes. Besides Sessions, Price and Mnuchin, the other nominees in the queue for floor action are Pruitt for EPA, Wilbur Ross for Commerce, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Energy, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) for Interior, Ben Carson for HUD, Linda McMahon for the Small Business Administration and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Mulvaney’s nomination was approved Feb. 2 in separate sessions by both the Senate Budget Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

McConnell is expected to try to get as many of these nominees confirmed as possible before the Senate leaves for the 10-day Presidents Day recess, which begins Feb. 17. Aides said it is possible that McConnell could get Sessions, Mnuchin and Price all confirmed the week of Feb. 6 and then turn to others the week of Feb. 13.

Under Senate rules, the cloture vote on the Sessions nomination could occur Feb. 6, after the Senate first considers the DeVos nomination. Aides said a final vote on Sessions is possible on Feb. 8.

McConnell then is expected to immediately turn to the nomination of Price. Aides said if cloture is invoked, a final vote on Price could occur Feb. 9. After that, the Senate would turn to the Mnuchin nomination, they said.

Democrats, who forced McConnell to hold votes on whether to go into session to file cloture on the three nominees, signaled they will want the usual 30 hours of debate on each nominee in order to discuss issues they said were shortchanged in committee. But as with Tillerson, the nominees are expected to be confirmed.

“We’re in unchartered waters with this administration,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Feb. 2. “They have not proposed a normal cabinet. This is not even close to a normal cabinet. I have never seen a cabinet this full of bankers and billionaires, folks with massive conflicts of interest and such little experience or expertise in the areas they will oversee. Many of the nominees have philosophies that cut against the very nature of the department to which they were nominated.”

EPA Pick Stirs Controversy

McConnell’s actions preparing for floor votes comes as committee action on Trump’s nominees is entering its final phase.

With action on Pruitt and Mulvaney, there are only a few Cabinet-level nominees who still have to be considered in committee. They are Andrew Puzder to serve as Labor secretary, David Shulkin to be secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to be Agriculture secretary.

Democrats said they remain angry that Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans forced action on Pruitt before he had responded to their questions about his positions on many issues and ties with the fossil fuel industry.

“He’s dodged our questions, ignored our letters and told us go the back of the line and make open records requests to get the information we are entitled to,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “There are at least 3,000 e-mails his office admits exist.”

But Cornyn dismissed these and other criticisms of the process underway.

“My question is what purpose is to be served from keeping the president fully staffed with the Cabinet that he’s chosen, knowing that you’re ultimately going to lose the fight?” Cornyn 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

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

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