Senate Republicans have heard the Democrats’ demands for a deliberate confirmation process for Donald Trump’s nominees.
But they don’t care.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s conference has scheduled six Cabinet-level confirmations hearings for next Wednesday, Jan. 11, the same day the chamber will likely slog through an all-night vote-a-rama on a budget and the president-elect will give his first press conference in six months.
It’s a disastrous schedule for Senate Democrats.
Republicans insist their intention is not to obscure the confirmation hearings for cabinet nominees amid a flurry of political activity. But the net result will likely be too many events for comprehensive news coverage — and it may tank Senate Democrats’ long-planned strategy to systematically attack Trump’s cabinet and wound the Republican Party.
“There is a whole lot of: ‘Don’t watch what we’re doing here,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democratic senator.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has personally urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not to schedule simultaneous hearings on Trump’s selections, warning that such a move would test the new relationship between the two leaders. But the GOP ignored the entreaty by scheduling the attorney general, secretary of state, CIA director, education secretary, homeland security chief and transportation secretary all for the same day.
“Not acceptable. I’ve told that to Mitch McConnell,” Schumer said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t think my members would find what they did appropriate or acceptable … I talked to Sen. McConnell last night, we had a very good discussion. I am hopeful we can resolve this.”
But Republicans are standing firm, refusing to back down to Democrats’ requests to move some of the hearings to different days. The GOP says the calls for delay are a transparent attempt by Democrats to slow down the confirmation process and isolate individual nominees with negative publicity. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said “Sen. Schumer is not satisfied with precedent and best practices.”
“They’ve made pretty clear they intend to slow down and resist and that doesn’t provide a lot of incentive or demonstrate good faith to negotiate changes. So I think we’re going to just be plowing ahead,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
In interviews on Thursday, Schumer’s Democratic colleagues lashed the GOP for purposely trying to bury any negative revelations that come out of the hearings for secretary of state choice Rex Tillerson, education secretary pick Betsy DeVos and attorney general selection Jeff Sessions by packing the schedule on what will surely be the busiest news day of the new year, so far.
“When you try and jam them in all one day, the appearance it gives is you are trying to rush them through … and minimize scrutiny” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Further, many Democratic senators serve on multiple committees holding hearings that day, complicating their plans to cut down Trump’s nominees.
“I can figure out how to walk across the hall to attend two hearings,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who will juggle confirmation hearings for both Tillerson and DeVos that day. “But the American public is not gonna have the chance to see who these people are.”
There has only been one other time that the Senate held confirmation hearings for six Cabinet-level nominees on a single day, according to the Congressional Research Service. That jam-packed day was Jan. 18, 2001, when the GOP-led Senate hosted George W. Bush’s picks to lead the Justice, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Energy, Veterans Affairs and Interior Departments.
And as many as seven of Barack Obama’s nominees got confirmation hearings on a single day during his 2009 transition, although they weren’t all Cabinet officials.
“If they can point out a way that we’re not treating the Republican nominees in about the same way we treated the Democratic nominees, I’d be glad to hear it. But I don’t think they can,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who will oversee DeVos and Labor pick Andrew Puzder.
But Democrats say this time really is different, arguing that Trump’s nominees are uniquely unqualified and have far more complex financial issues than Obama’s nominees. They have called for tax returns for several nominees and for the standard FBI background checks and Office of Government Ethics procedures to be completed before proceeding with the confirmation process.
McConnell made similar requests as minority leader during the first months of Barack Obama’s presidency. In a previously-undisclosed letter obtained by POLITICO, McConnell wrote to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in February 2009, asking for both the FBI and the OGE process to be finished before committee chairmen scheduled a hearing. That request came after Republicans cooperated with the Democratic majority to tee up confirmation votes for seven of Obama’s nominees on Inauguration Day 2009.
It’s a bit different in 2017. As of Thursday afternoon, three of the six Trump nominees on tap next Wednesday have completed the disclosure process through the Office of Government Ethics, according to a Senate Democratic aide: Tillerson, Sessions and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Trump’s CIA pick. Meanwhile, only Sessions has completed the standard FBI background check process, which doesn’t generally disclose information publicly but does include a briefing for the chairman and the ranking member. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said late finishes for FBI checks aren’t unusual, however.
And it’s those omissions Democrats say make clear the GOP is deliberately stacking hearings to obscure them.
“They’re trying to bury it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “No question.”
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina had some curt advice for Democratic complaints: “It’s called separation of powers and a DVR.”
“We’re not going to free up their time to potentially obstruct the president’s transition at the expense of us doing our jobs,” Tillis said.
Ditto Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is helming the hearing for Pompeo and juggling the DeVos hearing.
“We’ve got a lot of people to process, and mine’s been on the books probably the earliest. So that’s the only one I’ve got control of,” Burr said. “I’ve got other confirmations that day. You know, when you got 1270 confirmations to go through, you haven’t got a lot of time to do it.”
Others are more sympathetic. Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he had deliberately scheduled homeland security pick John Kelly for the afternoon so that Foreign Relations members could concentrate on Tillerson in the morning. And Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are each making Tillerson and Sessions’s hearings last two days.
But Corker suggested in an interview that “maybe a discussion should be taking place” about a different schedule — for some other chairman.
“I know there are some concerns about hearings, and maybe there is a need to prioritize. But secretary of state is … a very important national security position,” Corker said. “Secretary of state is almost first among equals as it relates to cabinet members.”
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, has long worked hand in glove with Corker on the panel’s issues. But Cardin is withholding his blessing for the hearing date.
“I have not signed off on it. He doesn’t need me to sign off on it,” Cardin said. “With Sen. Corker it’s been fine but there is this overall [scheduling] issue that is a concern.”
According to a review of senators’ committee assignments, at least a dozen senators are preparing for multiple hearings in the same day. And things might be toughest for the likes of Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who will have to hop back and forth between confirmation hearings for two particularly high-profile nominees: Tillerson and Sessions.
Flake’s solution? “Running in between them.”