Dems: Confirmation Hearings Schedule Limits Scrutiny

Dems: Confirmation Hearings Schedule Limits Scrutiny
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Senate Democrats are frustrated that Republican leaders have scheduled six confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees next Wednesday, the same day the president-elect will hold his first press conference in many months.

Democrats oppose several of the appointees and hope to drag out the vetting process, thus maximizing the public exposure of their complaints. They are concerned that with multiple hearings occurring simultaneously, it will be more difficult to fully question and evaluate the nominees in public settings. They’re also concerned that the schedule coincides with Trump’s press conference – and will take place the day after President Obama’s final speech in office – further taking attention away from the confirmation process.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday he had shared his concerns about the schedule with his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and hoped for a solution to “alleviate the crunch.”

“That is mostly unprecedented in the modern era of Cabinet considerations, happening only once in history,” Schumer said of the six hearings in one day. “That’s not the standard."

Schumer said “mostly unprecedented” because six confirmation hearings for President George W. Bush’s nominees were held two days before his 2001 inauguration.

“They’re jamming them together so that they receive less scrutiny and attention individually,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “I regret that there are so many hearings bunched together."

Republicans, for the most part, dismissed these concerns. They said it’s customary to expedite confirmations to allow the president to put his team in place, and that senators are used to multitasking, including balancing multiple committee hearings.

“I think they’re just, frankly, whining,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican in the chamber. “What they ought to do is spend their time, instead of posturing and dragging their feet, they ought to work with us to try to get these people vetted and confirmed.”

The schedule Wednesday is jam-packed: The Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson at 9 a.m.; the Intelligence Committee will consider Rep. Mike Pompeo, tapped to lead the CIA, at 10 a.m.; the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee will consider Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos at 10 a.m.; the Commerce Committee will hold a hearing for transportation nominee Elaine Chao (the wife of McConnell) at 10:15 a.m.; and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will consider DHS nominee Gen. John Kelly at 2 p.m.

In addition, the Judiciary Committee will hold the second day of its hearing examining Sen. Jeff Sessions nomination as attorney general at 9:30 a.m., though it will only feature outside witnesses, as Sessions is set to testify the previous day.

Nineteen Republican senators sit on at least two of those five committees and will likely have to balance simultaneous hearings; three Republicans -- Ron Johnson, Rand Paul and Todd Young -- sit on three of the committees. Fifteen Democrats sit on two of the committees, though none sit on three or more.

Many of the Republican chairmen who set the hearing dates brushed aside complaints about the timing. Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said he worked closely with Schumer and ranking member Ben Cardin to set his committee’s schedule (Cardin agreed with that assessment). A spokeswoman for Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley pointed out that he announced the hearing schedule for Sessions on Dec. 9.

Sen. Richard Burr told RCP his Intelligence Committee hearing, which was publicly announced Wednesday, had been “on the book probably the earliest.” He also serves on the education committee, which is holding a simultaneous hearing, though he said he’s just “got to manage my time well."

Even those Republicans who will have three hearings that day were unfazed by potential conflicts. “I haven’t seen any problem with the process,” said Paul, who has two confirmation hearings that morning and one in the afternoon.

“I think their complaint is unfounded,” said Johnson, who has two hearings in the morning and is chairing the Homeland Security hearing in the afternoon.   

Some Republicans acknowledged the difficulties of holding so many hearings the same day but said they are simply working hard to help Trump’s administration hit the ground running after his inauguration.

“It’s hard because we’re trying to get a lot of stuff done and make sure the president-elect has a team ready as soon as possible, and there’s only so many days to do that,” said Sen. John Thune, a member of GOP leadership and the chairman of the Commerce Committee. He dismissed the idea that it was an intentional effort by Republicans to limit scrutiny of the nominees.

“I think people who are interested in a particular nominee or a particular subject area will home in on that, focus on that,” he said. “I know a lot of the nominees that are scheduled for hearings next week are people that members on both sides want to question and we’ll do everything to make that possible.”

Despite saying he’d worked closely with Corker on the Tillerson hearing, Cardin said he thinks there are “too many at one time” and he hopes the scheduling coordination could be addressed before next week. Asked if he believes it was a purposeful effort by Republicans to make evaluating nominees more difficult, the Maryland Democrat replied, “I never question people’s motives.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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