A month into Donald Trump’s presidency, key Cabinet posts remain unfilled and many officials who have assumed their posts did so only after near party-line votes.
The contrast with the treatment accorded then-President Obama’s nominees is stark.
“Certainly, Trump didn’t shy away from people who he knew would be controversial.”
Consider the position of attorney general, where Jeff Sessions — despite two decades serving in the Senate alongside his fellow senators — received the vote of only one Democrat. Meanwhile, Eric Holder — one of Obama’s most controversial nominees — won “yes” votes from nearly half of Republicans, including Sessions himself.
Fourteen of Obama appointments requiring Senate approval did not even have recorded votes. Instead, the Senate confirmed them on unanimous “voice votes.”
The lack of deference shown Sessions contrasts with the way Senate Republicans treated a Democratic colleague up for a Cabinet post in 2009 — Hillary Clinton. Only two of 41 Republicans opposed her nomination as secretary of state. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, captured only four Democratic votes.
The disparity has not gone unnoticed in the Trump administration. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture earlier this month, the president joked about Democratic obstructionism with Department of Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson
“Hopefully, next week he’ll get his approval, about three or four weeks late — and you’re doing better than most, right?” he said.
Carson, whose confirmation hearing took place before Trump even took the oath of office, is still waiting for a vote.
The president complained again on Feb. 16 during his first news conference as president.
“So if the Democrats, who have — all you have to do is look at where they are right now — the only thing they can do is delay, because they’ve screwed things up royally, believe me,” he said.
Nothing illustrates the Democratic posture better than the nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who did not win a single Democratic vote. Vice President Mike Pence had to break a 50-50 tie to confirm her. White House press secretary Sean Spicer chided the opposition party afterward for their “childish tactics” meant to keep a “failed status quo,” and told reporters that it was a “glaring reminder of the unprecedented obstruction that Senate Democrats have engaged in throughout this process.”
In a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lambasted his Democratic colleagues for engaging in a “futile gesture” to slow nominations they cannot stop.
“I hope at some point here, the other side will accept the results of last year’s election, allow the administration to get fully staffed and ready to go,” he said. “But the desire, I guess, in place of the far Left has been a consuming passion for them so far.”
Traditionally, the Senate has given presidents broad leeway to pick their own advisers. Unless a scandal erupted, Cabinet confirmation votes have been low-drama affairs.
That was the case for Obama. Scandal forced the withdrawal of a pair of nominations — Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle amid revelations that failed to pay taxes on consulting fees he had earned; and Commerce Department nominee Bill Richardson, amid a grand jury investigation. A second nominee for the Commerce Department, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, changed his mind about taking the job.
But the nominations that actually came to a vote mostly won broad Republican support.
“The ones who weren’t voice-voted received only a handful of ‘no’ votes, relatively,” said Jason Pye, director of public policy and legislative affairs for the free market FreedomWorks. “They’re still pissed off about the results of the election.”
Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton, said the views and backgrounds of nominees like DeVos and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt guaranteed confirmation fights.
“Certainly, Trump didn’t shy away from people who he knew would be controversial,” he said.
But even consensus choices have received more opposition than in the past. Elaine Chao, who has prior experience as a Cabinet secretary and was tapped to lead the relatively minor post of transportation secretary, still drew a half-dozen “no” votes. Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, got through on a voice vote.
“Eight years on, our politics have become more partisan,” Devine said. “These things do get worse over time.”
Devine said it is too soon to say for sure if this is the new normal. A future president who makes more moderate nominations may faces less opposition-party resistance, he said. But he added, “Let’s be realistic; it’s unlikely.”
Pye, of FreedomWorks, said Democrats are likely to continue their delaying tactics with the remainder of Trump’s Cabinet.
“They’re going to keep losing on these things,” he said. “There’s nothing progressive about what they’re doing. They’re regressive. They want to take this country back.”