Some of Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks will get their confirmation hearings this week, setting up high-profile conflicts over Russia, civil rights and immigration.
Republicans have set up a packed hearing schedule. The most combustible will likely be hearings for Attorney General, where Democrats will push hard on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) past statements on race and immigration, and Secretary of State, where some senators are gravely concerned about Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s Russia ties.
Democrats don’t have a strong hand to play, largely because when they controlled the Senate in 2013 they lowered the threshold for confirmation picks from 60 to 51 votes. With 48 members, that means they won’t be able to block anyone on their own.
But they’re livid at the pace Republicans are trying to move, and are threatening to slow Senate operations to a crawl if they don’t get more information on some nominees and more time to vet them.
“A cabinet secretary has immense power over the lives of Americans, immense power, and they deserve a full vetting. An attempt to rush them through when you don’t know the potential conflicts of interest, their views on so many important issues and how they’ll divest themselves of the enormous wealth many have is a disservice to the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the Daily News Friday.
Schumer said that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were still negotiating over the schedule and thought there’d been “some progress” in talks, but was willing to dig his heels in if necessary. Democrats could force 30 hours of floor debate on each nominee, potentially stretching out the confirmation process to more than three weeks and make it all but impossible for Republicans to do anything else in the meantime.
Republicans scoff at their complaints, pointing out that President Obama had nearly half of his cabinet confirmed by the end of his first day in office. Democrats counter that Obama’s nominees had all their paperwork and background checks in when that happened.
They also say they made their own bed with their 2013 rule change.
“My friends on the other side of the aisle… let’s face it, shot a hole in their foot with the nuclear option,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Friday morning.
Trump is likely to get most if not all of his cabinet through — but that doesn’t mean it will be a smooth process.
Tillerson will face tough questions about his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose government awarded him the Order of Friendship medal in 2012, a high civilian honor, his work with Russia and other despotic governments — and his criticism of past sanctions against Russia. He’ll also face questions about climate change.
“The fact that you have a president-elect saying he doesn’t believe the intelligence agencies and he’s appointing someone who doesn’t believe in sanctions [against Russia]… and has significant interests in Russia, is very concerning,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
The real question is whether the most Senate GOP Russia hardliners agree.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have all expressed concerns about Tillerson’s Russia ties.
As of Thursday, Rubio was still undecided.
“I’m neither negative nor positive, I’m working on the nomination and taking it seriously,” he told reporters.
Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will oversee Tillerson’s confirmation, didn’t seem concerned about his chances.
“I predict that he’s going to be overwhelmingly supported. I predict that people are going to see what a distinguished individual this person is,” Corker said. “My guess is people are going to realize that his views on Russia are not in any way out of the mainstream.”
Sessions also faces the prospect of tough hearings, though he’s less likely than Tillerson to be blocked. No Republicans have suggested they may vote against him, while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already voiced his support.
But Sessions’ past — one that kept him from getting a federal judgeship in the 1980s — will face tough scrutiny.
While serving as U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions allegedly called a black assistant U.S. attorney “boy,” insisted that the NAACP was “un-American” and “Communist-inspired,” and agreed with a judge who called a white civil rights attorney a “disgrace to his race.”
Since then, he’s emerged as the Senate’s harshest anti-immigration reform voice.
Republicans know he’s in for a bruising hearing but are confident he’ll allay some concerns of people who he’s worked with for years, even if outside civil rights groups are likely to remain hostile. To counter some concerns, Republicans are planning to have prominent African Americans who have worked with him vouch for his character during hearings.
“Sen. Sessions is going to need to make the case that as Attorney General his job is to enforce the law, he’ll no longer be in a policymaking role, and I think they want to know that he understands that,” a source involved in the Trump transition’s efforts told the Daily News.
Democrats are also gunning hard for Health & Human Services nominee Tom Price, who has long advocated major Medicare and Medicaid changes as a congressman, and Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin, a billionaire who made huge sums from a bank that specialized in foreclosures after the 2008 economic crisis. They’ve raised concerns about four other picks as well.
But Republicans are ready to get to work pushing their conservative agenda, and most aren’t worried about any of Trump’s picks.
“He has selected a great team,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told The News.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close Trump ally, warned Democrats that they risked coming off as obstructionists.
“People outside of this town have said ‘get busy and get something done.’ If they’re missing that message, they’ll rue the day,'” he said. “I’m hopeful that they’ll put this nonsense aside. Let’s look at the issues around these confirmations and get it done.”