Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Democrats Eye Senate Gantlet for Trump Picks They Can’t Stop

  • Tillerson, Mnuchin, DeVos, Pruitt, Price, Perry among targets
  • Quick confirmations for some but others will get dragged out

Democratic senators know they probably can’t block Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks, but they plan to force lengthy debate on nominees they consider radical -- potentially stretching well beyond Inauguration Day.

While the Senate traditionally gives presidents significant leeway to choose their own team, many of Trump’s picks have liberal groups howling in protest.

“I’m inundated, inundated -- nominee after nominee -- by people in Michigan who are concerned,” said Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of the party’s leadership. “It goes on and on and on.”

No Republicans, however, have yet come out against Trump’s picks, and Democrats cannot block a nominee without Republican help. That’s because they effectively changed the rules to bar filibusters of executive-branch nominations in 2013. Democrats can drag out the process, though, while Republicans seek to address other priorities such as repealing Obamacare.

"Unless there’s some information that comes out in the hearings that isn’t currently known, I think they’ll all be confirmed," said Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership.

This leaves Democrats trying to figure out how hard to fight Trump’s most controversial nominees. They’re likely to lose all of the battles, but senators see an opportunity to highlight where Trump’s picks stray furthest from his populist campaign message -- both in lengthy hearings in committee and in debate on the Senate floor.

Contentious Choices

Among the particularly contentious picks so far are Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson, who was awarded a friendship medal in 2013 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, at State; former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker Steven Mnuchin to run Treasury, and longtime Medicare privatization advocate and Obamacare foe Representative Tom Price to head Health and Human Services.

Three Republicans would need to join with Democrats to block a nominee if all the Democrats hold together in opposition. But moderate Democrats in states that Trump won who face re-election in 2018 will face extra pressure to go along with the president-elect’s choices. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, has already signaled his general intent to vote for Trump’s nominees.

Tillerson faces the toughest road so far, says Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have all expressed skepticism about the Exxon chief’s close ties to Putin. 

Paul, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has his own concerns. "A big question is whether or not whoever it is has learned the lessons of the last couple decades in the Middle East,” he said Thursday. “And the lesson as far as I’m concerned is that regime change hasn’t made us safer and has made the place more chaotic. So we’ll see.”

Dragging Out the Process

Unless Republican unity cracks on Trump’s other nominees, the most Democrats can do is to delay the process. They could force each Cabinet pick to go through 30 hours of debate, eating up valuable Senate time and creating an acrimonious start to the new administration. Democrats could block a Trump nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, however. Current rules require 60 votes to advance a high court confirmation.  

Other nominees who may face contentious hearings are Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which he has long opposed; Rick Perry at Energy, a department he once sought to eliminate but couldn’t remember its name on a debate stage; fast-food CEO Andy Puzder to head the Labor Department; private school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos at Education, and Senator Jeff Sessions, who was rejected by the Senate in the 1980s for a judgeship, as attorney general.

Democrats are also fuming about Trump’s pick of Representative Mick Mulvaney to run the Office of Management and Budget, noting the South Carolina Republican helped lead the 2013 standoff over Obamacare that resulted in a government shutdown. 

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sits on the Budget Committee that will consider the OMB pick, said he was worried by Mulvaney’s “past unwillingness to support bipartisan budget compromises, his pro-shutdown record, his advocacy for slashing federal services and workers and his goal of defunding Planned Parenthood.”

Republicans are already urging Democrats to treat Trump’s picks the way Republicans treated President Barack Obama’s in 2009, when seven were approved on his first day in office and all but a handful were confirmed within his first two weeks.

“You would think that the tradition of confirming a significant number of them on Inauguration Day or shortly thereafter will continue and I think less than a handful will take longer than that,” Blunt said. The more Democrats drag things out, they risk looking like they are “objecting to people they clearly cannot prevent from going onto the Cabinet.”

It’s certainly possible Democrats would agree to a package of nominees to be confirmed on Inauguration Day itself. Some picks, like Transportation nominee Elaine Chao -- a former labor secretary and wife of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- are virtual locks. 

Unanimous Consent

But other high-profile nominees won’t be able to get the unanimous agreement of 100 senators needed to expedite their confirmations.

“So far he has shown absolutely no signs that he wants to work with Democrats,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said of Trump. “He is building the most partisan, radical Cabinet in my lifetime.”

Murphy said he’s not going to give consent for quick confirmation on many of them.

“These are, with a few exceptions, radical nominees, the likes of which we have never seen in the history of this country,” he said, adding that Trump was “appointing people to the Department of Labor where 50 percent of their businesses were in violation of labor laws, appointing somebody to the EPA who advertises that he wants to run the EPA into the ground."

Rich Targets

A senior Democratic Senate aide said Trump’s picks present rich targets, and added that Democrats would focus on those who drive a wedge between Trump and the populist message he ran on. That includes choices like Mnuchin, given his history of profiting in the aftermath of the housing and foreclosure crisis, and Price, given Trump’s promise during the campaign to protect Medicare.

Democrats on Friday announced a new website seeking the stories of people evicted by Mnuchin’s former bank, OneWest Bank Group, which has been criticized for a blizzard of foreclosures.

That said, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has been careful not to come out too hard against most of the nominees, saying mostly that their backgrounds require careful vetting and tough questions.

Schumer will have to balance his desire not to appear obstructionist and to work with the new administration on issues like infrastructure with his left flank’s desire for maximum resistance. At some point, Democrats will have to work with these nominees once they get into office.

‘Penetrating Scrutiny’

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he’s already come out against Price and Pruitt and is likely to oppose Tillerson too because of his potential conflicts of interest, his relationship with Putin and his stances on environmental issues.

"Each of these nominees ought to be given very careful, penetrating scrutiny. And that kind of review may well require longer than just the month of January," Blumenthal said.

He said he still thinks the process could prompt enough Republicans to block someone.

"At the risk of sounding naive, I really have confidence that this process will not only hold accountable future Cabinet secretaries but also potentially block some if there is sufficient reason to do so on the merits. Not politics, not personality, but on the merits," Blumenthal said.

Government Outsiders

That could be doubly true since so many of Trump’s picks are people outside government who have never been vetted for public office before. Tillerson, for example, will likely have to defend his own record, as well as Exxon’s.

Democrats also will highlight Sessions’ hardline views on issues like immigration enforcement. That could put pressure on senators like Dean Heller of Nevada, a Republican who faces the voters in 2018 in a state where the Hispanic vote proved decisive in electing Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto this year as the first Latina in the Senate to replace Harry Reid.

Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the incoming chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said they plan at a minimum to “shine a very bright light” on each of the nominees.

"You’ve got a number of nominees who have dedicated their careers to destroying the agencies they are planning to head," he said. "There are going to be a number of Republicans who are troubled by some of these nominees, so the question is what kind of coalitions can be formed to defeat them."

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