Donald Trump’s cabinet picks are easing long-running tensions with the congressional GOP, drawing gushing praise from skeptical Republicans who had been wary of the kind of administration the political neophyte would build.
The quartet of people chosen over the past week — Betsy DeVos, Nikki Haley, Tom Price and Elaine Chao — look like locks for confirmation, according to interviews Tuesday with Republican senators. Perhaps more importantly, the picks have reassured Republicans that Trump will stock his government with road-tested conservatives.
The soothing effect extends beyond just congressional leaders — who had grown weary of answering questions about Trump’s divisive rhetoric until he won the election — and even includes the handful of “Never Trump” senators.
“That’s been the uncertainty, for somebody who’s never been in any part of government,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of who would staff a Trump administration. “But I think you can tell a lot about the quality of the people [he] surrounds themselves with and are going to be doing a lot of the day-to-day heavy lifting.”
The early picks appear to have quelled any alarms about Trump appointing Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and Michael Flynn as his national security adviser, reassuring the Republican establishment that his incoming administration will largely be in line with Republicans’ ideology and policy acumen.
“It seems to me that he’s making good solid choices and he’s going to have capable people around him. That’s a big job for anybody, but when you don’t have a lot of D.C. experience, the people he’s picked are going to be good counselors and advisers,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump critic from campaign start to end.
Trump’s choice of Chao to be transportation secretary and Rep. Price (R-Ga.) as health and human services chief on Tuesday continued a pattern of appealing to the Republican lawmakers who will carry out his legislative agenda next year. Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), will likely be a critical liaison between Trump and Capitol Hill when work begins on his infrastructure package and the conservative Price is a steadfast Obamacare critic viewed by Republicans as an able technocrat.
Trump’s pick of Steven Mnuchin to be his Treasury Secretary has drawn no Republican opposition after being floated publicly for weeks.
Still, lots of cabinet posts remain to be filled. The biggest question mark is secretary of state, and Republicans say privately that contest has narrowed to three people: Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Mitt Romney and Gen. David Petraeus. Corker and Romney met with Trump Tuesday.
Depending on who Trump chooses to run the State Department, he could have a fight on his hands, thanks to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has criticized Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Petraeus. Paul could singlehandedly use Senate procedural rules to stall Trump’s pick, or even defeat it in committee if Democrats uniformly oppose a secretary of state nomination. Paul is a swing vote on the narrowly divided Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“It’s the most important cabinet position historically. And I think that one of the things that’s very important is that Trump is advocating for some significant changes in our foreign policy: That the Iraq War is a mistake and that regime change hasn’t made us safer,” Paul said in an interview. “If he appoints somebody who doesn’t agree with him, it will sort of be all for naught.”
Some of Trump’s GOP critics are openly cheering for Romney, particularly after Haley was nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations. If the 2012 GOP presidential nominee gets it, it would assuage concerns that Trump will seek revenge against those who opposed him in the campaign.
“With Nikki Haley he reached across to somebody who wasn’t a fan of his, so that’s encouraging. Secretary of state, that’s the big one,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who opposed Trump. “Romney would be an awesome pick. That would give a long way toward unifying the party and reassuring our allies. That’d be a master stroke.”
The reaction from Democrats, of course, has been the polar opposite. They are preparing for an all-out campaign against Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), nominated to be attorney general, for his views on civil and voting rights issues. And they spent Tuesday criticizing Education Secretary nominee DeVos for undermining public schools and Price for promoting plans to privatize Medicare.
But Trump doesn’t need Democratic votes to get his cabinet picks confirmed. Democrats changed the Senate rules in 2013 to allow approval of cabinet nominations by a simple majority, which means Trump can run the table on his confirmations without attracting a single Democratic vote. The days of traditional cabinet battles, and the need for bipartisan buy-in, are over.
Ascending Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is hoping a pressure campaign can sway some Republicans against Price, but it will be a tall task given the sweeping praise he received on Tuesday. Republicans are likely to control 52 seats next year, which means they can lose two votes and still have Mike Pence break the tie as vice president on tough nominations.
“It’s possible. You’ll have to ask a number of the Republicans on the other side,” Schumer said. “I think there’s a chance that [Price’s] nomination will fail.”
Cornyn, the GOP’s vote counter, said he was confident all of Trump’s nominations thus far will be confirmed. Influential Republicans spent Tuesday praising Trump’s management skills, a remarkable turn considering so many of them glowered when asked of Trump’s campaign antics just a few weeks ago.
“I’m impressed with the way he’s going about it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who will oversee DeVos and Price’s confirmations. “The first signal that he gives about what kind of president he’s going to be is the kind of men and women that he appoints to his cabinet … so far so good, is how I look at it.”
Indeed, McConnell is confident enough in Trump’s selections that he will move to confirm a number of cabinet secretaries on Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration. In 2009, the Democratic Senate confirmed more than a dozen top-level appointees without roll call votes in Obama’s first week. Hillary Clinton’s nomination to the state department was the only one to garner opposition, and just two senators voted against her.
While some non-controversial nominees like Chao may be able to get through with little dissent, Democrats are unlikely to just wave through all of Trump’s appointees, even if they are powerless to block them. Sessions in particularly will likely require a roll call vote to be confirmed as attorney general, though Republicans predict he will be confirmed.
“That’s not going to go by voice vote, I don’t believe,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “That one concerns me.”
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