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Senate Republicans’ efforts to put President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet in place are entering their second week, with some nominees on track for quick confirmation while others are bogging down in controversies over their credentials and financial dealings.
Nominees likely to get approval soon after Trump’s swearing-in include his choices of James Mattis to be defense secretary, John Kelly to lead Homeland Security and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to try to move the nominations of these and possibly other Trump picks in the hours after the president’s midday inauguration on Jan. 20.
At the same time, McConnell is ramping up hearings on other nominees to serve at many federal agencies in charge of domestic programs, including the Health and Human Services, Education, Energy, Commerce and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. In all, there are seven hearings planned over three days on Trump’s Cabinet picks (see hearing list below).
McConnell said he wants early action on the nominees to ensure Trump has essential team members in place on “Day One,” particularly his national security team.
Democrats signaled support for moving security-related picks but still are raising opposition to others, such as former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general. Democrats said they also are concerned that Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), selected to lead the Health and Human Services Department and Betsy DeVos, chosen to lead the Education Department, and others have business and political dealings that raise conflicts of interest. Amid growing concern about the pace of hearings, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) late in the day refused to lock in any deals to vote on the nominees Jan. 20 amid concerns that Democrats are not being given enough time and information to adequately consider nominees like Price and DeVos.
Schumer said Democrats are concerned about reports that Price wrongly traded in health-care stocks at the same time he was pushing new House legislation to help the industry. Schumer said he is asking the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Price’s trades are in violation of the law before Price appears before the Senate Finance Committee in February.
“Until a congressional ethics investigation can be completed, this report and his previous trades cast serious doubt on whether Congressman Price is fit to hold the office of secretary of Health and Human Services,” Schumer said on the floor as the Senate began its work week.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Bloomberg BNA that, besides the national security team, he and McConnell are working to get Sessions and Tillerson approved soon. Also on the list for early confirmation, Cornyn said, is former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to serve as transportation secretary.“We’re trying to get seven on Inauguration Day, the same as [President Barack] Obama got,” Cornyn said.Cornyn acknowledged Tillerson has drawn criticism from Republican “Russian hawks” for his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the week of Jan. 9, Tillerson refused calls by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to label Putin a “war criminal” and generated concerns about his stance on alleged Russian hacking during the U.S. election.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the committee, also said he was undecided about how to vote on the nomination. Any defection is critical, as Republicans control 11 seats while Democrats have 10 seats on the committee.“We’re trying to work our way through that,” Cornyn said, when asked about support for Tillerson’s nomination. “Ultimately, I think he will be confirmed.”Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he also had concerns about Tillerson and told CNN he still doesn’t know whether he can vote for him.“When I see what Vladimir Putin has done in the way of literally committing war crimes internationally—I’m pointing out again precision weapons used in Aleppo to strike hospitals and kill innocent men, women and children, that’s just an example—then I question the recipient of a friendship award with Vladimir Putin,” McCain said, referring to the Order of Friendship, a Russian state award that Putin gave Tillerson in 2013.
But McConnell’s plans to get as many nominees as possible confirmed by week’s end were cast into doubt when he later adjourned the Senate until 4 p.m. Jan. 20 without announcing an agreement to vote on the national security team and others. Under Senate rules, nominees can’t be put to a vote in the Senate on the same day they are officially received from the White House unless consent from the minority party is given.
An aide to Schumer said Democrats are not inclined to give that consent unless they win concessions to slow down the hearing schedule to give lawmakers more time to examine the credentials of the nominees. Minus consent, he said, McConnell will be forced to file cloture on all the nominees and face a drawn-out process that could put votes off until the week of Jan. 23.
McConnell’s plan to adjourn the Senate until Inauguration Day shuts down the opportunity for floor debate on the nominees in advance of votes. But hearings still will continue on the nominees, he and other aides said.
Schumer questioned McConnell’s related plans to hold seven confirmation hearings over a little more than two days’ time, while the floor debate occurs. In particular, he said the scheduling of three hearings on Jan. 18 will make it hard for senators to attend them all. He said it appears to reflect a plan to rush the nominees through with little public scrutiny.
“That’s going to be very difficult for many members,” Schumer said. “We have tried to cooperate with my friend, the majority leader. These are not good signs. They don’t bode well.”
Schumer didn’t signal opposition to the national security nominees or noncontroversial picks such as Chao, who is also McConnell’s wife. But he said the nominations of Price and DeVos raise particular concern.
Schumer said he’s concerned about reports Price engaged in heavy trading of health-care stocks at the same time he sat on committees, such as the House Budget and House Ways and Means panels that have jurisdiction over the industry. In particular, he said the ethics office has to investigate whether Price broke the law when he bought the stock of a medical device manufacturing company before he introduced a narrowly-drafted bill to help that industry. The latter, he said, could violate the STOCK Act, a 2012 law which prohibits insider trading.
“It may well be that this trade was illegal,” Schumer said. “Now, this isn’t a witch hunt. These are serious and disquieting allegations. The American people deserve to know if their potential secretary of Health and Human Services violated a law against insider trading in Congress.”
“A narrow company with hip and knee implants, legislation with hip and knee implants coming soon after he bought stock—whoa. These questions cry out for answers before—let me underline ‘before'—nominee Price goes before the Senate Finance Committee,” Schumer said.
Those concerns are likely to dominate a large part of the discussion when Price appears before the HELP Committee Jan. 18. Other controversies about Trump’s plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and possibly look at the privatization of Medicare also are expected to be aired at the hearing.
Schumer said he also is concerned that the HELP Committee went ahead with a hearing at 5 p.m. Jan. 17 on the nomination of DeVos to head the Education Department even though she has yet to forward a signed ethics agreement showing how she plans to avoid conflicts of interest. That’s particularly problematic as DeVos’s wealth is estimated to be $5 billion, he said.
Similarly, Schumer said the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee only received required financial disclosure paperwork from billionaire investor Wilbur Ross late Jan. 16, less than two days before his Jan. 18 hearing. Schumer said he is trying to get the meeting postponed.
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