Senate’s Cabinet Work Slows Amid New Controversies

By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate Republican leaders are ramping up their efforts to confirm more of President Donald Trump’s top Cabinet picks, with action planned both in committee and on the floor Jan. 31 to advance his nominees for Justice, Treasury, Health and Human Services, State and other executive branch agencies.

The nomination of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick to head the State Department, is moving ahead on the floor after the Senate voted late Jan. 30 to begin what could be a lengthy debate on the controversial choice.

In committee, the nominations of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general, Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for HHS also will be put to a vote early in the day. Also advancing in committee are the nominations of Betsy DeVos for Education, Ryan Zinke for Interior and Rick Perry for Energy.

In the days following the inauguration the Senate approved most of Trump’s national security team, including his picks for the Defense and Homeland Security departments. But the top spots at most of the domestic-related agencies remain vacant pending confirmation votes.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to confirm each of the president’s well-qualified nominees in a timely manner so they can begin the important work before them,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Jan. 30.

But Democrats are signaling that many of the nominees are facing a rougher time when they advance to the floor. Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial executive order banning certain nationalities from entering the U.S., that he now is opposing at least eight of the president’s nominees. Even the Jan. 31 vote to quickly confirm Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, to serve as the head of the Transportation Department was in question amid concerns about the executive order.

Schumer said he already planned to oppose Tillerson, Sessions and DeVos.

“Nothing will change that, and while I will continue to demand that each nominee issue a public statement on his or her views of President Trump’s Muslim ban, I will vote against nominees who will be the very worst of this anti-immigrant, anti-middle-class, billionaires’ club cabinet,” Schumer said in a Jan. 30 statement.

“Rep. Mick Mulvaney [R-S.C.] for budget director, Rep. Tom Price for Health and Human Services, Steve Mnuchin for Treasury, Scott Pruitt for EPA, and Andy Puzder for Labor have repeatedly shown they will not put the American People or the Laws of our nation first, and I will vote against their confirmations,” the statement said.

Tillerson, Chao on Tap

Besides top leadership at the Pentagon and Homeland Security Trump now has in place his picks at the Central Intelligence Agency and the United Nations. Trump’s national security team nominees were confirmed before Senate Republicans headed to Philadelphia for a policy retreat with their House counterparts Jan. 25.

McConnell now plans to turn to the nomination of Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, and have the Senate vote on the nomination possibly by Feb. 1. The stage for a full-blown debate on Tillerson was set when the Senate voted 56-43 to invoke cloture on the nomination the evening of Jan. 30.

But that debate is expected to be contentious, as Democrats use the floor to explore Tillerson’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and reluctance to endorse existing or new sanctions on the country. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), also have concerns about Tillerson’s stance on Russia.

On top of that, Democrats questioned Tillerson’s role in writing the controversial executive order, which is described as a tool to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the U.S. but is being criticized for causing chaos at airports around the world and keeping many innocent Muslims from traveling.

McConnell’s plan to also temporarily put the Tillerson debate on hold in order to quickly bring up the nomination of Chao and confirm her was in doubt when Democrats said they want more information about what Chao’s role will be in implementing the executive order.

“I could not disagree more with the intention behind the order, but the haphazard and completely incompetent way in which it was implemented made matters even worse,” said Schumer, who later in the day was blocked from offering a plan to upend the plan.

Chao’s nomination, as well as that of Wilbur Ross to serve as secretary of Commerce, was easily approved by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee the previous week. But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member, said Chao needs to now answer additional questions about DOT’s role in carrying out the order.

Other Nominees in Queue for Action

The fight over Trump’s picks is expected to further intensify in February, when McConnell tries to confirm as many of the nominees as possible before a 10-day Presidents Day recess that begins Feb. 17.

Under the emerging plan, the series of committee votes on the nominees Jan. 31 will set the stage for more of Trump’s picks to be taken up on the floor the weeks of Feb. 6 and Feb. 13.

After Tillerson and Chao, Ross is a likely candidate to advance soon. Another priority for McConnell will be to bring up quickly the nomination of Sessions to serve as attorney general. However, debate on the Sessions nomination is expected to raise more controversies, with Democrats criticizing his stance on voting rights, immigration, domestic abuse and more.

More contentious floor debates are expected when McConnell turns later in the month to the nominations of Mnuchin and Price. Price, who is seen as being the administration’s chief proponent for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, has generated controversy for allegedly trading in health-care stocks at the same time he was sponsoring legislation to help the industry. Mnuchin, meanwhile, drew criticism for his role at OneWest and for pushing an aggressive foreclosure policy.

Democrats, aides said, will look for ways to slow the debates down in order to more fully explore the nominees’ records than was possible in hearings. Trump’s executive order also will be the subject of the debates, they said.

“It’s so noxious to Democrats that we’re going to do whatever we have to do to get them to back off,” a top Democratic aide 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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