Mnuchin, Price, Sessions Advance in Senate as Democrats Boycott

  • Republicans circumvent protest to advance several nominees
  • Democrats force delays on votes for Pruitt, Mulvaney

Senate Panel Approves Mnuchin, Price by Emergency Steps

Senate Republicans brushed aside a boycott from angry Democrats and took emergency steps Wednesday to advance the nominations of Steven Mnuchin to run Treasury and Tom Price to head Health and Human Services.

The Judiciary Committee separately approved the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general on Wednesday in a straight party-line 11-9 vote, one day after Democrats forced a delay by making lengthy speeches blasting Trump for his executive actions on immigration and questioning Sessions’s independence.

The steps move the three men a step closer to confirmation, as Democrats intensify their offensive against several of President Donald Trump’s nominees. At the same time, Democrats stalled committee votes on two other nominees Wednesday -- Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency and Representative Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget. 

Even so, Senate rules leave the minority party with no ability to block the nominees, as long as Republicans remain united in support of Trump’s picks.

Overall, Trump is making slow progress in stocking his cabinet. The full Senate voted Wednesday afternoon to confirm former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson as secretary of State in a 56-43 vote.

But the drama at several committees shows rising frustration on both sides about the handling of the confirmation process.

Without any Democrats present, the Senate Finance Committee moved Wednesday to report Mnuchin and Price to the floor on 14-0 votes, after voting to suspend the panel’s rules.

The action came one day after Democrats forced a delay on scheduled votes by skipping the committee’s meeting and denying it a quorum. Democrats said they need more time to scrutinize Trump’s picks, particularly after the president’s controversial executive action on immigration.

‘Proper Decision’

Chairman Orrin Hatch defended his decision to take emergency measures to push the nominations forward.

“I don’t care what they do, but the parliamentarian said this is a proper decision.” he told reporters after the votes.

Democrats “didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me they weren’t going to show up yesterday and were holding press conferences out there without even talking to me. So I don’t feel a bit sorry for them,” Hatch said. “I don’t care what they want at this point. They’ve proven that they don’t act in good faith.”

Ron Wyden, the panel’s ranking Democrat, blasted Republicans for pushing the nominees through with Democrats still waiting for answers to questions about potential ethics issues.

“Today, for the first time in history, the Senate Finance Committee broke the rules to push through on a partisan basis two nominees,” he said. “Boycotts of committee meetings are not unheard of – my Republican colleagues, led by Chairman Hatch, took such a step just a few years ago.”

Few Options

Hatch told reporters afterward he didn’t know when Mnuchin and Price would receive floor votes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday morning that Democrats couldn’t do anything to stop Trump’s nominees.

“We’re gonna win this war,” he said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “They can huff and they can puff, but they’re not going to blow the house down. And we’re going to confirm these nominees and move on with the business of this administration.”

In the Judiciary meeting on Sessions before the vote, Democrats launched repeated attacks against the Alabama senator’s qualifications and his close personal relationship with Trump, saying an independent attorney general is needed to tell the White House if it overreaches or acts illegally. 

They redoubled their attacks on Monday after Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, when she refused to defend an executive order temporarily banning migrant travel from seven predominately Muslim countries.

With the committee’s approval behind Sessions, Democrats will struggle to stop Sessions from being confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

"If you are concerned with securing the strong and equal enforcement of our laws, you should look no further than Senator Sessions to find an attorney general that’s up to that task," Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Tuesday. "The test is whether Senator Sessions as attorney general will uphold the laws he voted against as senator. On issue after issue, Senator Sessions made clear that he will."

Several Delays

Democrats on Wednesday forced the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to delay its planned vote on Pruitt. 

Delaware Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the panel, had requested a postponement, citing a lack of thorough answers from the nominee. When that wasn’t granted, Democrats decided to boycott the meeting and prevent a quorum.

"I just want to say: We need the truth," Carper told reporters afterward. "I take no joy in not being a participant in this business meeting scheduled today."

Democrats forced a similar delay in a planned vote by the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Mulvaney’s nomination. The panel’s top Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said she wants answers to additional questions about Mulvaney before proceeding.

Under Pressure

Democrats are under pressure from liberal groups to block Trump’s Cabinet picks, particularly after the president’s controversial executive order on immigration.

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said he held two town halls last weekend, one drawing a crowd of 600 that was the largest he’d ever had to date, and then a second that set the record with 3,700 attendees.

“People are terrified of this president, who is undermining our fundamental values on religious freedom, religious tolerance, the value of immigration and diversity. His efforts to tear down one group of Americans after another is totally unacceptable,” he said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the delays in confirmations of key Trump Cabinet members reflects the broad discontent that’s emerged after the president’s first week in office.

“It’s a massive sign of discontent and disagreement and the fact that the nation is so divided,” she said.

— With assistance by Saleha Mohsin, Erik Wasson, Kayla Webb, Jennifer A Dlouhy, Ari Natter, and Chris Strohm

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