President-elect Donald Trump’s two least controversial Cabinet nominees are expected to be confirmed by the Senate Friday afternoon, but the rest may have to wait before they can officially join the Trump administration.
Senate Democrats agreed to hold confirmation votes Friday afternoon, following Trump’s inauguration, for Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Defense, and Gen. John F. Kelly, his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Both generals are well known to senators. Mattis was previously in charge of U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Kelly led U.S. Southern Command. Perhaps more critically, both showed a willingness to break with the president-elect’s more controversial positions during their confirmation hearings last week, on matters including the likelihood of building a wall on the border with Mexico and the importance of countering the Kremlin to preserve the hegemony of NATO.
Both Mattis and Kelly are expected to earn bipartisan support on the Senate floor.
While Democrats are ready to endorse Trump’s generals, they are withholding support from almost all of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, threatening to slow-walk proceedings on the floor if the president-elect doesn’t force his picks to go back to the committees and answer more questions. But it is unclear whether they will be able to persuade any Republicans to join them in opposition, and Democrats cannot ultimately reject any of the nominees without GOP allies.
“If there was ever a group of Cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it’s this one,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday, calling Trump’s Cabinet “a swamp full of billionaires” beset with “conflicts and ethical issues as far as the eye can see.”
Schumer accused Republicans of “trying to jam through” Trump’s Cabinet picks — in some cases, before traditionally requisite paperwork had been fully filed — and said the nominations of several billionaires and sitting politicians belied Trump’s campaign-trail promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Of all of Trump’s pending Cabinet picks, Democrats have promised only to start debating the nomination of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), selected to serve as CIA director, after the two generals are cleared. Pompeo could receive a confirmation vote either Friday or Monday.
But there are at least eight other nominees they are prepared to delay proceedings over until Democrats are able to register their complaints, either in another round of committee questions or on the floor.
Those nominees include attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who faces deep skepticism over his civil rights views and record; Education nominee Betsy DeVos, who underwent aggressive questioning from Democrats Tuesday over her views on education policy and showed a tenuous grasp of some key issues; Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price, a Georgia congressman who is accused of using his legislative post to help companies he had invested in; and Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick for the Office of Management and Budget, who admitted failing to pay taxes for a domestic employee for four years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview Wednesday that “Democrats are in a bad mood” and are taking that out on Trump’s nominees. “We are getting off to kind of a rough start,” he said in a USA Today interview.
McConnell said he was “appalled” at some of President Obama’s appointments, “but my attitude was he won the election and that is what comes with winning the election.”
Another nominee who is expected to inspire controversy is State Department nominee Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on his nomination Monday, but it is not clear that Tillerson will win the support of a majority of members. Democrats are all but uniformly opposed to his nomination, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has criticized Tillerson sharply for his stance on Russia’s involvement in Syria and countering human rights violations around the world.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested, however, that GOP leaders are prepared to get Tillerson’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote, regardless of whether Tillerson had won over a majority of the committee.
“There are multiple processes for moving someone out of committee,” Corker said. “At this point, I’m confident he’s going to be our next secretary of state.”
Democrats have also signaled serious doubts about Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, grilling the billionaire investor Thursday about his six-year tenure running a mortgage bank after the 2008 economic crisis, as well as his failure to initially disclose hundreds of millions of dollars of personal assets to the Senate Finance Committee. Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick to lead the Labor Department, is under close scrutiny for his record as chief executive of a major fast-food chain — including his stance against minimum-wage increases and federal worker protections — and will face senators on Feb. 2. And Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, underwent hours of hostile questioning Wednesday from Democrats concerned about his views on climate change and his record of repeatedly suing the agency he is looking to run.
Other picks — such as Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson, Transportation nominee Elaine Chao, Interior nominee Ryan Zinke and United Nations ambassador nominee Nikki Haley — have generated fewer objections. But Democratic leaders said some senators still had unanswered questions that needed to be resolved before consenting to a confirmation vote.
“If Republicans continue to stonewall and cover up the serious issues that many of those nominees are trying to avoid, they should be prepared to have those debates on the floor of the full Senate,” Schumer said.
It is unlikely Republicans, who argue that they are putting Trump’s nominees through the same vetting that Obama’s nominees received, will bend to Democratic demands. And Democrats are hamstrung by the fact that they cannot use the 60-vote procedural filibuster to block any Cabinet nominations.
Mulvaney, whose tax questions are similar to those that derailed past Democratic nominees, received a gesture of support Thursday from a prominent Democrat and fellow South Carolinian.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democratic leader, said he wanted to know more about the circumstances of Mulvaney’s tax misstep but would “give him the benefit of the doubt.”
With some sympathy, he compared the situation to one his family’s beauty salon faced many years ago: “My daddy didn’t realize [he had to pay employees’ taxes], either. But he paid a hell of a penalty for it.”
Clyburn said he was more concerned about the issues facing Price: “Insider trading, to me, is very, very serious. To me, that’s much more serious than an oversight on payroll taxes.”