Senate Republicans pushed a third Cabinet-level nominee toward confirmation Thursday without Democrats present to register opposition, moving to bypass the minority party as its members boycott some committee votes in protest of President Trump’s agenda.
Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works suspended the panel’s rules and approved Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, with 11 votes in favor and none opposed.
“It’s disappointing [Democrats] chose that course of action, but we will not allow it to obstruct,” Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said of the boycott. “The minority wants political theater. The nation needs a new EPA administrator.”
Democrats accused Pruitt of stonewalling their requests for additional information. “We still have not received the relevant documents and the substantive answers we’ve requested from Mr. Pruitt,” Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement after the vote. “We have made our requests perfectly clear, and I believe they are entirely reasonable.”
Two other Trump nominees were pushed through committee under suspended rules this week. At the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday morning, Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) led the approval of Steven T. Mnuchin as treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as health and human services secretary after Democrats chose not to attend. Their nominations now head to the Senate floor for up-or-down votes, although it is unclear when they will occur.
“Republicans on this committee showed up to do our jobs. Yesterday, rather than accept anything less than their desired outcome, our Democrat colleagues chose to cower in the hallway and hold a press conference,” Hatch said.
Separately, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Thursday approved Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to lead the Office of Management and Budget on a vote of 8 to 7. Among the yes votes was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had suggested he might vote against Mulvaney given his stance on curtailing defense spending. On Thursday, McCain said he voted Mulvaney out of committee to allow a full Senate debate on his nomination, but warned in a statement that he continues to have concerns about it.
The Senate Committee on the Budget also approved Mulvaney on Thursday morning on a party-line vote of 12-11.
The drama on Capitol Hill is unfolding at a time when Democrats, under intense pressure from liberal activists, have become increasingly emboldened to block Trump’s agenda and appointees.
Democrats were enraged by the administration’s executive order issued over the weekend to bar travel to the United States by people from seven majority-Muslim countries. They galvanized around the firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was dismissed for refusing to enforce the ban.
Some Democrats were also angered by the president’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night, arguing that Republicans cannot expect them to swiftly approve the selection after their blockade of then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
“Democrats are going to keep fighting back,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “We are going to stand with people across the country. And we will keep pushing Republicans to put country above party and stand with us.”
That stance was met with praise from liberal activists, labor unions and constituents.
“We’re seeing someone who came into office with a historic popular vote loss come in and push a radical, unconstitutional agenda,” said Kurt Walters, the campaign director of the transparency group Demand Progress. “Yes, radical and bold tactics are what senators should be using in response.”
Democrats’ committee boycotts are not expected to bar any Trump nominees from confirmation. But Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is encountering headwinds in the form of opposition from two GOP senators.
Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) signaled Wednesday they do not plan to support DeVos, leaving Democrats one vote shy of the number needed to doom her nomination. Both senators cited uncertainty about whether DeVos, an avid supporter of charter schools and school vouchers, is sufficiently committed to helping public schools.
This week, Republicans also advanced the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general, and they finalized confirmation of former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson for secretary of state by a vote of 56 to 43. There were no confirmation-related floor votes scheduled for Thursday as of 9 a.m.
In committee, GOP members incensed by Democratic boycotts spent the first part of the week exploring how they could quickly approve nominees such as Price and Mnuchin and punish Democrats for their absences.
Staffers for the Finance panel scoured its lengthy rule book and discovered it permits the majority party to temporarily suspend the rules and meet without Democrats. Hatch said he consulted the Senate parliamentarian, who serves as a referee on all disputes in committees and on the Senate floor, who said doing so was within bounds.
After weeks of back-and-forth about Trump’s nominees, “the boycott was the last straw,” explained Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who pushed staffers to explore their options.
Some members of the GOP dismissed accusations that the party is bending Senate procedure to quickly confirm Trump’s picks.
“I think people expect senators to show up for work and be there. It’s unfortunate,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Democrats, meanwhile, defended their protests as necessary to register their frustration after a small group of Republicans refused to allow them to question nominees once new information came to light.
In the Environment and Public Works Committee, Republicans vented their frustration when Democrats did not show up for a vote on Pruitt that was scheduled for Wednesday.
A GOP aide displayed a chart designed to show how quickly past EPA nominees were confirmed. Notably missing, however, was Obama’s second EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy. Nominated in March 2013, McCarthy was not confirmed until July of that year — at one point, Republicans on the Environment Committee boycotted a meeting to demand that McCarthy answer more questions.
“That was not a new president, newly elected,” said Barrasso, arguing that the GOP boycott differed because it happened during Obama’s second term. “A newly elected president, I believe, has a right to their Cabinet.”
With Tillerson, six high-ranking Trump nominees have been approved by the full Senate: Elaine Chao as transportation secretary; retired generals John F. Kelly and Jim Mattis at the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon; Mike Pompeo to lead the CIA; and Nikki Haley to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Ed O’Keefe, Sean Sullivan and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.