Senate Republicans pushed two of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees through committee votes on Wednesday morning, reacting angrily to Democratic stalling tactics to disrupt a series of confirmation hearings the day before.
In a rare move likely to further stoke partisan tensions, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) suspended his committee’s rules to advance Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as secretary of health and human services. Their nominations now head to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote, although it is unclear when that will occur.
By about 10:45 Wednesday morning, Senate Democrats also had not shown up at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to consider Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
The hearing — which was ultimately delayed – devolved into a series of frustrated statements from Republicans who chided absent Democrats.
As Republicans spoke, an aide displayed a chart designed to show how quickly past EPA nominees were confirmed. Notably missing, however, was then-President 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 Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), 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.”
There is little Democrats can do to prevent final confirmation of any of Trump’s picks because the GOP needs only 51 votes to approve them in the full Senate and there are 52 Republican senators. In fact, the Senate is likely to approve former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department late Wednesday.
In a sign of their limited power, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 11 to 9, on a party-line vote with Democrats all present, to advance Sessions’s nomination to become attorney general. A confirmation hearing for Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to lead the Office of Management and Budget was delayed Wednesday.
Republicans celebrated Sessions’s approval even as Democrats wreaked chaos at hearings elsewhere in the Capitol.
“Senator Sessions has devoted his life to public service, and his qualifications cannot be questioned,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a statement following the Sessions vote. “He has a history of protecting and defending the Constitution and the rule of law for all people.”
So far, five high-ranking Trump nominees have been approved by the full Senate: Elaine Chao as transportation secretary; retired generals John 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.
The Democratic moves — and Republican pushback — mark a dramatic escalation in partisan tensions on Capitol Hill following Trump’s decision over the weekend to issue an executive order barring travel to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Some Democrats were also angered by the president’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night, arguing that Republicans cannot expect them to swiftly approve the selection after their blockade of Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, before the election.
In a sign of the new level of toxicity, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was among six Democrats who voted against Chao, who is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She is the first transportation secretary ever to earn “no” votes, according to a C-SPAN review of Senate records.
Republicans are clearly frustrated by the Democratic stalling tactics and are fighting back.
In the Judiciary Committee, the Sessions vote followed a testy exchange between Cornyn and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in which the two argued over decorum.
In the Finance Committee, Hatch explained in a statement that although panel rules said there must be a quorum of members for all committee business — including a member from each party — those rules can be suspended at any time. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) moved to suspend the rules on these nominees specifically, and all rules that apply to them going forward. Hatch said the rare measure was approved by the Senate parliamentarian.
Democrats were told Wednesday morning that Finance would reconvene — but they were not given any indication that Hatch planned to alter the rules to approve the nominees, according to a spokesman for them.
“We took some unprecedented actions today due to the unprecedented obstruction on the part of our colleagues,” Hatch said in a statement. “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 vowed this would not be the end of the story.
“Needless to say, this discussion isn’t over. I intend to get the committee back to where it once was, and I will use every tool at my disposal, procedural or otherwise, to make sure this doesn’t become the new normal for the Senate Finance Committee.”
Lead Finance Committee Democrat Ron Wyden (Ore.) assailed the Republican actions to approve Mnuchin and Price without Democrats present.
“Today, for the 1st time in history, Senate Finance Cmte broke the rules to push through, on a partisan basis, 2 nominees who misled the Cmte,” Wyden tweeted.
He complained that Mnuchin had misled the committee by initially misstating his personal wealth on a financial disclosure form, and misrepresenting under oath how OneWest Bank,which he led as chairman and chief executive officer, scrutinized mortgage documents. And Wyden pointed to a series of discounted stock buys Price made in a health care company, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Democrats began their protests on the Hill on Tuesday, when they walked out of the committee votes on several Trump nominees and used the rules to slow consideration of Sessions.
They had less success delaying confirmations elsewhere. They tried once again to stall a committee vote to advance Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, but Republicans prevailed on a party-line vote despite new revelations that her written responses to hundreds of questions appeared to include passages from uncited sources.
Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the nominations of former Texas governor Rick Perry to be energy secretary and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to be interior secretary — both with bipartisan majorities, sending them to the full Senate for final up-or-down votes.
Democratic opposition grew after the announcement this weekend of Trump’s ban on travelers from what he said were dangerous countries. Hill Democrats are echoing growing liberal anger in the streets by exhausting every procedural mechanism at their disposal to delay the nominees — even if it still results in Trump’s nominees taking office.
“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.”
Ed O’Keefe and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.