By Kelsey Snell, Ed O’Keefe and Sean Sullivan
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans took steps Wednesday to thwart Democrats plans to obstruct the confirmation of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees for a second day amid frustrations over the president’s pick Tuesday night of a stalwart conservative to serve on the Supreme Court.
Senate Finance Commitee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, suspended the rules to advance Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., as secretary of health and human services. All Republicans were at the Finance hearing on Wednesday morning but no Democrats were present to put their opposition on the record.
The GOP move comes after Democrats walked out of hearings on Tuesday, denying Republicans the necessary votes to approve Trump’s nominees for a vote in the full Senate. Democrats planned to replicate that approach Wednesday to slow consideration of Trump’s pick of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Yesterday, rather than accept anything less than their desired outcome, our Democrat colleagues chose to cower in the hallway and hold a press conference,” Hatch said Wednesday in a statement.
Both Mnuchin and Price were approved 14-0 without the support of any Committee Democrats.
Republicans fumed Tuesday after Democrats walked out of the scheduled committee votes and used other commitee rules to slow consideration of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as Attorney General.
There is Democrats they can do to prevent final confirmation of any of Trump’s picks but the plan to focus their energy Wednesday on slowing or disrupting committee action on Trump’s picks to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice even as Republicans took s
Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court was met with fierce resistance from some Democrats, though it’s unclear whether they will have the 60 votes needed to block his confirmation. Republican leaders said they hoped to vote on Gorsuch in April before the two-week Easter recess.
Gorsuch’s selection seemed to only give steam to the increasingly energetic protest movement on the Hill against Trump’s Cabinet nominees — only three of which have been confirmed: Elaine Chao was approved as transportation secretary on Tuesday, while John Kelly and Gen. James Mattis are now installed at the Homeland Security Department and the Pentagon, respectively.
In a sign of a new level of toxicity, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was among six members of the Democratic caucus who voted against her. Chao, who is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the first transportation secretary ever to earn “no” votes, according to a C-SPAN review of Senate records.
Republicans were furious at the stalling tactics for all the nominees.
“It is time to get over the fact that they lost the election,” McConnell said. “The president is entitled to have his Cabinet appointments considered. None of this is going to lead to a different outcome.”
Democratic opposition grew after the announcement this weekend of Trump’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. They plan to echo growing liberal anger in the streets by exhausting every procedural mechanism at their disposal to delay the nominees — even if it still results in Trump’s nominees taking office.
Democrats alone lack the votes needed to block any of Trump’s nominees from taking office — and there are no signs of Republican opposition to any of his picks.
“Democrats are going to keep fighting back,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “We are going to stand with people across the country. And we will keep pushing Republicans to put country above party, and stand with us.”
That stance was met with praise from liberal activists, labor unions and constituents, who have been pressuring Democrats to mount more resistance to Trump.
“We’re seeing someone who came into office with a historic popular vote loss come in and push a radical, unconstitutional agenda,” said Kurt Walters, the campaign director of the transparency group Demand Progress. “Yes, radical and bold tactics are what senators should be using in response.”
The protests began Tuesday with a delay on the vote to approve Sessions as attorney general after Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to enforce his executive order regarding travel from seven countries.
On Tuesday, Democrats would vote against Sessions out of concern that he would never similarly defy Trump in the face of a potentially unconstitutional act. Then they invoked an arcane rule to block the committee from holding a roll-call vote on the nomination, forcing Republicans to postpone the vote until Wednesday.
In a nearby hearing room, the Senate Finance Committee convened to vote on Treasury Secretary-designate Steve Mnuchin and Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Price. Democrats boycotted that meeting entirely, denying Republicans a necessary quorum and forcing them to reschedule both votes.
They had less success delaying confirmations elsewhere. They tried once again to stall a committee vote to advance Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, but Republicans prevailed on a party-line vote despite new revelations that her written responses to hundreds of questions appeared to include passages from uncited sources.
Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the nominations of former Texas governor Rick Perry to be energy secretary and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to be interior secretary — both with bipartisan majorities, sending them to the full Senate for final up-or-down votes.
Most of the drama Tuesday unfolded along a fluorescent-lit hallway on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch sat at the dais with just three other Republican senators at the start of his hearing to consider Mnuchin and Price. Having just come from the Judiciary Committee where Sessions’s nomination was being stalled, Hatch told his colleagues, “Jeff Sessions isn’t treated much better than these fellas are.”
“Some of this is just because they don’t like the president,” Hatch said, later adding that Democrats “ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots.”
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) agreed. “I think this is unconscionable,” he said.
“We did not inflict this kind of obstructionism on President Obama,” added Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., the only other senator in the room. He added that the Democrats were committing “a completely unprecedented level of obstruction. This is not what the American people expect of the United States Senate.”
In fact, in 2013, Republicans similarly boycotted a Senate committee’s vote on Gina McCarthy to serve as former president Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Senators said at the time that she had refused to answer their questions about transparency in the agency. Republicans did it again that year to one of Obama’s nominees to serve as a deputy secretary of homeland security. And throughout 2016, they blocked a hearing for Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
In a series of interviews on Monday, Schumer threatened to jam the Senate calendar if Trump did not revoke his travel order or if Republicans did not allow a vote on legislation that would rescind it.
“Senate Democrats, we’re the accountability,” Schumer boasted in an interview with Spanish-language network Univision.
On Tuesday, shortly before the Finance Committee hearing began, committee Democrats huddled in the office of lead Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and agreed to boycott the meeting.
“In some ways, we’re doing President Trump a favor,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said. “If these nominees had been confirmed, and then these stories broke about how they lied, how they made money on foreclosures, how they made money off of sketchy health-care stock trades, this would have been a major scandal for the administration. Now it’s just a problem we can fix.”
Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator, later marveled at having to rush back and forth between three contentious hearings.
“I lost some weight here today,” he quipped.