Democrats Spoil for Fight on Trump Cabinet Picks
If Senate Republicans stay united, they can confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees without any support from Democrats. But even if the minority party can’t block nominees, its members still plan to turn Trump’s Cabinet choices into a major fight early next year.
The president-elect has nominated about half his Cabinet at this point – plus nominees for ambassador to the United Nations and CIA director – with a number of key positions, including secretary of state, still to be determined. But some of the earliest picks have raised serious red flags for Democrats, who have vowed tough questioning and intense confirmation processes.
In particular, Trump’s choices of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general, Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia for health and human services have drawn stiff criticism from Democrats.
To be sure, some of Trump’s nominations should pass muster easily. The Senate swiftly confirmed six of President Obama nominations with Republicans’ support eight years ago and did the same with seven President Bush nominees. Both presidents also had nominees withdraw or face staunch opposition.
It’s because of Democrats’ decision three years ago to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster on most confirmations that Trump’s picks can sail through a Republican Congress without bipartisan support. Most Republicans have indicated they’re likely to support Trump’s nominations.
But Democrats aren’t throwing in the towel. The goal is threefold: to convince moderate Republicans to buck their party, which could help Democrats block some nominees; to create a proxy war over policy proposals, including Trump’s hard-line immigration stance or congressional Republicans’ plans for changes to Medicare; and to drive a wedge between Trump, his nominees and congressional Republicans on some issues where they disagree.
“There’s no presumption on my part that anyone nominated is going to make it through very, very quickly. They have to prove their mettle before the committee,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, said Thursday. “There are a lot of contradictions here between the people he’s named, their backgrounds, their philosophies, and what he said in the campaign. Expect to hear more."
In particular, Democrats think they will find success in opposing Price. Price, a physician who has spent 12 years in Congress, has been a vocal advocate of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and has also supported significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid. He told reporters on Capitol Hill last month that he expected Medicare changes to come in the first six to eight months of the Trump administration. Though Speaker Paul Ryan and many congressional Republicans have long supported making changes to Medicare, Trump campaigned on preserving entitlement programs.
“The question is, what is the nominee going to do: follow President-elect Trump or his own policies and the policies that have been passed repeatedly by the House to gut Medicare and Medicaid?” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. “… So far, we’re seeing a lot of conflicts in those being proposed for appointments and what President-elect Trump promised the American people."
Democrats think that if they make Price’s nomination a proxy fight over changes to Medicare, they can force some Republicans to oppose him. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii called supporting Price a “litmus test” for supporting changes to Medicare and predicted some Republicans would side with Democrats. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won, sits on the committee that will evaluate Price’s nomination. He said the “million-dollar question” was whether they could convince any Republicans to oppose Price.
“Donald Trump said he was going to strengthen and make more generous Medicare and Social Security,” Brown told RCP. “So I want to know from Price: what does that mean? Are you going to continue on your efforts? Are you going to do what Trump says? Are you splitting the difference?”
It isn’t just Price’s nomination Democrats plan to challenge aggressively. While most Republicans, and some Democrats, voiced support for Sessions as attorney general, many in the minority party have deep concerns about him running the Justice Department given his positions on immigration and civil rights issues.
A group of eight senators sent a letter this week to Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley calling for an extended process in evaluating Sessions. They pointed out that 16 years ago, when President George W. Bush nominated Sen. John Ashcroft for the post, 19 outside witnesses testified over four days. The senators have called for witnesses in more than a dozen policy areas, from immigration to civil rights to transparency and oversight.
Grassley, after meeting with Sessions this week, pointed out that hearings for the past four attorneys general lasted just one or two days, with significantly fewer witnesses.
“The confirmation process of John Ashcroft to be attorney general turned into a reckless campaign that snowballed into an avalanche of innuendo, rumor and spin,” Grassley said. “That will not happen here.”
Democrats also unloaded a torrent of negativity against Mnuchin, the Goldman Sachs banker Trump tapped to lead Treasury Department. Progressive firebrands Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tag-teamed on a statement calling the choice “hypocrisy at its worst.” Democrats have pointed out some controversial history of Mnuchin, including the fact he profited from home foreclosures during the financial crisis.
They hope to turn his confirmation into a proxy policy war on Wall Street regulations. Mnuchin said on CNBC this week that stripping back Dodd-Frank regulations would be “the number one priority on the regulatory side,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
“This pick makes clear that Donald Trump wants to cater to the same Wall Street executives that have hurt working families time and again,” Sanders and Warren said in their statement.
Despite their calculations, Democrats face an uphill climb since they eliminated the filibuster, but they retain some hope that Republicans professing support for Trump’s nominees now might waffle in early 2017.
While Mnuchin’s nomination has drawn no opposition from Republicans to this point, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said that could easily change after hearings. He pointed to Mnuchin’s background of having profited off foreclosures and the fact that a Hollywood studio he joined as an investor filed for bankruptcy two months after he departed.
“You put that out on the table, it may cause some significant concerns,” Kaine said. “I do think you have to use the hearings as a way of airing what the real issues are."