Cabinet Fight Previews Tough Road Ahead in Senate
Senators argued bitterly over Cabinet appointments in the hours following President Trump taking the oath of office, with some Republicans suggesting Democrats were having a “temper tantrum” about the election outcome. Several Democrats, meanwhile, blocked Trump’s nominee for CIA director from swift confirmation despite overwhelming support, pushing for a more thorough debate.
The spat Friday capped an acrimonious beginning to the new Congress and set a potentially hostile tone of partisanship as Republicans’ took control of Washington, signaling potentially lengthy fights to come.
Several senators told RealClearPolitics the Cabinet disagreement did not necessarily indicate that bipartisanship would be impossible in a closely divided Senate – but lawmakers in both parties said it is incumbent on the other side to cede ground in order to find a semblance of consensus.
The entire confirmation process has irked Democrats, who have complained about missing ethics paperwork and limited questioning of nominees during hearings. Republicans, in turn, have accused the minority party of slow-walking the process to prevent Trump from putting his team in place at the start of his administration.
The disagreement led to just two nominees being confirmed on Friday, five fewer than on President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration Day – Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary and Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security, both of whom received overwhelming bipartisan support.
The limited confirmation votes sent signals that, with major legislative battles looming and a Supreme Court nomination likely in the coming weeks, the Senate could soon become mired in partisan bickering and slow-moving deliberation.
Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, was one of three party members who suggested opponents were throwing a “temper tantrum” over Trump’s Cabinet picks.
“I think we need to stop bad habits on the part of the Democrats,” Cornyn said shortly before the inauguration. “Obviously they lost the election, they’re not happy about it. I don’t expect them to be happy about it, but I also don’t expect them to engage in bad behavior that really doesn’t serve any other purpose other than maybe make them feel better in their loss."
Democrats were not pleased with the criticism. Cornyn’s counterpart, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, said on the Senate floor the suggestion they were slowing down Cabinet confirmations “negates and ignores the reality before us." Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it “disingenuous.”
“I’m an easy-going guy. That criticism just has no legs at all,” Cardin told reporters Friday. “It is unfair what they’re saying. You want to go back and talk about a Supreme Court nominee that sat there for a year? You want to go talk about judges? We want to move these nominees as quickly as we possibly can.”
Cardin’s committee will consider Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson, Monday afternoon after only receiving written answers to questions Friday, Cardin said. Most Democrats consider Tillerson’s nomination controversial, but he likely has enough Republican support to be confirmed.
Democrat Chris Coons said his party’s approach to these appointments “sets the theme” for the Senate in the next four years.
“In those cases where the president-elect has nominated someone capable of leading an agency, Democrats are working with them and supporting them,” Coons said shortly before Trump’s inauguration. “And in those cases — and sadly there are many — where he has nominated people who are patently unqualified, have conflicts of interest or are determined to undermine or destroy the agencies they’ve been nominated to run, they’ll face vigorous opposition."
Some Republicans blistered at Democrats’ tactics, particularly the delay of Rep. Mike Pompeo’s nomination for CIA director. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he’d had an agreement with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that Pompeo would receive a vote on Inauguration Day after Burr rescheduled his hearing by a day to accommodate Democrats’ preference. A senior Democratic aide denied such an agreement had existed.
“It doesn’t speak well that Chuck Schumer is breaking his word in the first month of the Congress,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told RCP.
Others were more measured in their reactions. North Dakota Republican John Hoeven said it was clear Democrats were trying to slow the process, but that the Republican majority would simply have to keep “grinding the Senate, keep working.”
“I think they’re sending the signal that they’re going to contest the things we try to do,” Hoeven told RCP. “But I hope out of that debate we can convince members of the other caucus that they need to join us in a bipartisan way on some solutions.”
There are signs, at least at the individual level, of bipartisanship. Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia – a state Trump won by 40 percentage points – has shown a willingness to vote for some of Trump’s controversial Cabinet appointments. And on issues of trade and infrastructure, he is hopeful for consensus.
"I’m trying … so hard,” Manchin said when asked by a reporter what the prospects were for bipartisanship. “Jesus Christ, I’m trying. I’m doing everything I can.”
Manchin is considered the likeliest Democrat to cross party lines on key issues, and serves in Schumer’s leadership as an envoy to Republicans and the administration. But even some of his more liberal colleagues appeared interested in better relations. Sen. Chris Murphy said he didn’t appreciate Republicans’ handling of the hearing process, but wasn’t pessimistic about the prospects of bipartisanship going forward. He said he thought Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s relationship would likely bring deals that benefit both sides.
“We can both do better going forward,” Murphy said. “Republicans can be fairer to us and we can probably be fairer to them."
The Senate will take its next step to reverse the tide Monday evening when it votes on Pompeo’s nomination -- a step made possible Friday evening after an agreement to begin debate reflected strong backing from both parties. It’s unclear how many other Cabinet nominees will receive votes this week before Republicans depart Wednesday for a retreat in Philadelphia, but Schumer said Sunday on CNN that “a few more” could be confirmed.
Beyond the Cabinet, however, the Senate will have to confirm approximately 1,200 other administration appointees, consider a Supreme Court nomination, begin the arduous process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Cart Act and start work on various legislative priorities. Because the Senate moves slowly and time for floor debate is a precious commodity, Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Nebraska Republican who often opposed Trump during the campaign, said Schumer and Democrats could essentially hold the Senate hostage if they want.
“I think Schumer and his conference are going to decide how beholden they are going to be to folks who don’t want the government to function,” Sasse told RCP.
Schumer – who has taken to calling Trump’s nominees a “swamp Cabinet” – said Sunday there are eight or nine appointees he considers controversial who will require thorough debate on the Senate floor, though he indicated he could support others who are viewed less negatively.
Lengthy debate remains Democrats’ most potent weapon since they cannot block any of Trump’s nominees without GOP help – the result of their own change to filibuster rules in 2013. Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrats’ vice presidential nominee last year, said it was fair to expect extensive debate on Trump’s nominees given that they could pass through with only Republican support. When asked what the confirmation process previewed in terms of bipartisanship, Kaine said it is “too early to tell.”
Some Republicans said they believed Democrats would learn quickly that staunch opposition wouldn’t be a fruitful strategy.
“They’re wondering whether or not they get any advantage to this stonewalling,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said. “I don’t think the American people are going to stand for it. I think they’re expecting us to produce results, and if they stand in the way of that on a consistent basis, it’ll be a political problem for them.”