For the Best of Confirmation Hearings, Watch the Matchups
Confirmation hearings usually are rituals featuring perfunctory performances and showboating. There will be plenty of both this week as Senate hearings begin on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees.
But there will also be compelling combat. A handful of senators will come prepared with challenging questions on substantive issues. To find the most interesting battles, do what smart sports fans do before the National Football League playoffs: Watch the matchups.
Elizabeth Warren versus Andrew Puzder. Warren has proven she's a tough interrogator; the Massachusetts Democrat devastated Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf last year when he was summoned to explain why customers had been signed up for accounts they didn’t ask for. She is a member of the Health, Education and Labor Committee, where colleagues say her focus will be on Puzder, the designated labor secretary.
Puzder, a fast-food CEO, provides plenty of possibilities. He has opposed increasing the minimum wage, the Obama administration's rule expanding eligibility for overtime pay, and paid sick leave. In a speech last year, he praised automation, noting that machines were "always polite,” that they “never take a vacation” or show up late, and that they are never responsible for “a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex- or race-discrimination case." Afterward he wrote that humans are important "to assure smooth experience for customers."
Warren, who presents herself as a champion of the working class, will challenge him on these issues. Later, look for her to stand out in Banking Committee sessions grilling the new Securities and Exchange Commission chair, Jay Clayton, a Wall Street lawyer.
Lindsey Graham versus Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO, will probably be confirmed as secretary of state, but will face tough scrutiny over his relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
The questions most likely to draw blood will come from Republicans led by Graham, who, along with his colleague John McCain, has fiercely criticized Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria along with hacking of e-mail accounts aimed at influencing the U.S. presidential election. Another Foreign Relations Committee Republican, Marco Rubio, also has been critical of Tillerson's relations with Russia but he's more likely to soften punches.
Dianne Feinstein versus Jeff Sessions. Sessions, the Alabama senator who has been tapped to be Attorney General, will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is a member. He’ll have lots of friends there.
But watch Feinstein, the veteran California lawmaker and senior Democrat on the committee. She showed her steel in the last Congress when she took on the Central Intelligence Agency to try to force it to release details of clandestine torture program. Going after Sessions for his hard-right views on race, immigration, gender equality and sexual orientation, may be easy by comparison.
Corey Booker versus Scott Pruitt. Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, is an arch critic of the Environmental Protection Agency he has been picked to run. He’s a climate-change skeptic whose nomination has been celebrated by the coal industry and other fossil-fuel interests.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat with national aspirations, will bring energy and passion to taking on Pruitt, who is strongly opposed by environmental groups. Booker has also said he will take the unusual step of testifying against a fellow senator, Sessions.
Michael Bennet versus Steve Mnuchin. Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, is a thoughtful but not especially passionate partisan. Treasury secretary-designate Mnuchin has created fewer controversies than other Trump nominees. Neither is the type who sets off fireworks.
But Mnuchin, formerly of Goldman Sachs, earned millions of dollars by investing in a failing California bank during the financial crisis. It reportedly foreclosed on more than 36,000 homes and critics have labeled it “a foreclosure machine.”
As a former top Denver investment firm executive, Bennet knows the issue, is prepared and having just been re-elected may be willing to take a bold posture.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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