Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell are heading for a showdown over Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
Schumer, who will become Senate minority leader next week, has privately indicated to McConnell that Democrats may not be willing to go along with quick confirmations for Trump’s nominees if the Senate majority leader’s caucus doesn’t meet several demands, according to sources in both parties familiar with the matter. Schumer is insisting on certain financial disclosures from Trump’s picks as well as an assurance on the timing and length of hearings.
The incoming minority leader raised the issue in a private letter to McConnell this month. Neither leader’s office would comment directly on the letter given the sensitivity of the new relationship between the two party honchos.
But people familiar with the communications between the two leaders said Schumer is calling for McConnell to not schedule simultaneous confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees, so that members on multiple committees can attend each confirmation hearing. That could make it difficult for all nominees to be ready for floor votes by Inauguration Day.
Democratic officials and senators said they are also looking for comprehensive financial disclosures from each nominee, time to review those disclosures, and completed reviews by the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics before confirmation hearings begin. Some of those demands were also included in Schumer’s letter to McConnell, sources said.
Democrats have not settled on how they would retaliate against Republicans if their conditions aren’t met. But Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, declined to rule out some form of retaliation if Trump’s nominees “are holding back tax returns, critical financial information, and are behind on their ethics certification.”
“As soon as President-elect Trump’s nominees have submitted all of their paperwork, (and) senators have had time to review their record and a fair hearing schedule has been agreed to by both parties, the process can move forward. If Republicans think we’re going to quickly greenlight their nominees to fill up this rigged Cabinet without a thorough review, they have another thing coming,” House said.
Democrats can use Senate procedures to throw sand in the gears of the chamber, though a 2013 rules change prevents them from unilaterally blocking Trump’s Cabinet selections. One strategy would force the Senate to go into recess in order to hold some committee hearings; Democrats could also deploy parliamentary tactics to force cloture votes on nominees and drag out debate for days. Democrats estimate they could make the confirmation process take as long as two months.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is vowing to force a “full conversation” on the Senate floor as allowed by the rules, which allow up to 30 hours of debate on Cabinet nominations.
Democratic leaders haven’t decided yet exactly how to proceed.
“We don’t yet have all of the background information [on Trump’s picks] and knowing exactly what [confirmation schedule] is realistic is to be determined,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. That panel will hold hearings on Trump’s selections for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder; for education secretary, Betsy DeVos; and for Health and Human Services secretary, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).
Republicans accuse Democrats of threatening to obstruct the president-elect’s agenda. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said that Schumer and other Democrats “approved wholeheartedly” of processing President Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominations as soon as he was sworn into office, and suggested Democrats are holding Trump’s picks to a different standard.
“Surely they won’t object to treating the incoming president’s nominees with the same courtesy and seriousness with which the Senate acted on President Obama’s nominees,” Stewart said. “Our committees and chairmen are fully capable of reviewing the incoming Cabinet nominations with the same rules and procedures as the same committees did with President Obama’s nominations.”
Democrats also said that all of Obama’s nominees had signed ethics agreements with the Office of Government Ethics before their confirmation hearings, a step all of Trump’s nominees have yet to take.
Obama’s “administration thoroughly vetted potential nominees, ensured that they provided all of the relevant information to Senate committees before their hearings, and underwent a rigorous review and hearing process before a confirmation vote,” House said. “President-elect Trump’s administration has taken the opposite approach with his nominees.”
Republicans say there’s still time for those agreements to be reached before the hearings. No hearings have been scheduled for the first week of January.
Democrats want confirmation hearings to span multiple hours — and in some cases, days — to give them time to scrutinize Trump’s picks. They are targeting, among others, Rex Tillerson’s ties to Russia as he potentially becomes secretary of state; Price’s plans for health care; and the complicated personal finances of billionaire Wilbur Ross, tapped to become commerce secretary.
“I’m not interested in a confirmation hearing that lasts an hour-and-a-half,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
It’s not clear whether Republican senators will comply with Democratic demands. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has scheduled a Jan. 12 hearing on Puzder, the same date that the Senate Armed Services Committee was eyeing for defense secretary pick James Mattis, though no decision has been finalized.
And Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will hold confirmation hearings Jan. 10 and 11 on Jeff Sessions, the prospective attorney general. That would leave little time for more hearings before Inauguration Day given that Jan. 16 is Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday.
Grassley said Democrats asked him to schedule the Sessions hearings later in January but argued it would have been “difficult” to schedule hearings between Martin Luther King Day and the Inauguration.
“Every attorney general has had a hearing before the inauguration since Eisenhower,” Grassley said. “Democrats have asked me to schedule it a little bit later because of the 22 years [Sessions] served in the Senate. But I think people know Sessions.”
Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.
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