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Senate Democratic boycott delays committee votes on Trump nominees

  • Author: Ed O'Keefe, Sean Sullivan, Kelsey Snell, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 31, 2017

WASHINGTON – Democrats intensified their opposition to President Donald Trump on Tuesday by further delaying the confirmation of several of his Cabinet nominees amid strong Republican objections.

Hours after Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend his executive order banning certain travelers and refugees, Democrats blocked a committee from approving the president's choice for attorney general. Amid concerns with information provided by his picks to lead the departments of Health and Human Services and Treasury, Democrats did not show up at another Senate committee at all.

The theatrics drew more attention to Trump's recent decisions and the growing bipartisan concern with his executive order Friday to implement a travel ban with virtually no consultation of top government officials or senior lawmakers.

But it also allowed Republicans to attack Democrats for holding up the formation of Trump's government. Ultimately, Democrats alone lack the votes needed to block any of Trump's nominees from eventually taking office – and there are no signs of Republican opposition to any of his picks.

During a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats criticized Trump for firing Yates and said that they would not support his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., because they do not believe he would ever stand up to Trump in a similar fashion. They also invoked an arcane rule to block the committee from holding a roll-call vote on Sessions's nomination on Tuesday. The committee adjourned for the day, and Republicans said they would reconvene on Wednesday.

Just down the hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the Senate Finance Committee met to vote on Steven Mnuchin's nomination to serve as Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price's nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services – but Democrats boycotted the meeting, forcing Republicans to reschedule both votes.

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) on Capitol Hill in March 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Meanwhile, Democrats once again tried and failed to stall a vote to advance Trump's pick for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to the full Senate, but Republicans prevailed on a party-line vote.

Amid the rancor elsewhere, senators confirmed Elaine Chao to serve as Trump's Transportation secretary by a vote of 93 to 6. And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the nominations of former Texas governor Rick Perry to be Energy secretary and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to be interior secretary with bipartisan majorities, sending them to the full Senate for final up-or-down votes.

Developments in the Judiciary and Finance committees, however, signaled how defiant Democrats remain in stalling Trump's nominees.

When the meeting began, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sat alone at the dais with just three other Republican senators. Having just come from the Judiciary hearing, Hatch told his colleagues, "Jeff Sessions isn't treated much better than these fellas are."

"Some of this is just because they don't like the president," Hatch said, later adding that Democrats "ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots."

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., agreed. "I think this is unconscionable," he said.

"We did not inflict this kind of obstructionism on President Obama," added Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., the only other senator in the room. He added that the Democrats were committing "a completely unprecedented level of obstruction. This is not what the American people expect of the United States Senate."

But just four years ago, Republicans similarly boycotted a Senate committee's vote on Gina McCarthy to serve as President Barack Obama's interior secretary. Senators said at the time that she had refused to answer their questions about transparency in the agency.

Other walkouts have happened, most famously in 2003, when Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, dispatched U.S. Capitol Police officers to find Democrats who left a hearing where Republicans were trying to pass a pension bill. He later apologized for his heavy-handed tactics on the House floor.

Shortly before the Finance hearing began, committee Democrats huddled in the office of the panel's ranking member, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and agreed that they would all boycott the session, aides said.

The boycott was prompted by Democrats' concerns that Mnuchin initially misstated his personal wealth on financial disclosure forms and misstated how OneWest Bank, a bank he led as chairman and chief executive officer, scrutinized mortgage documents. Democrats have also raised questions about Price and his personal financial investments in health-care companies and legislation he promoted that could have benefited several of the same companies. Some of the stock trades, as well as campaign donations from companies, closely coincided with one another.

Steven Mnuchin testifies before a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Treasury secretary in Washington, January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

A series of stock buys the lawmaker made in an Australian company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, has brought scrutiny for weeks. In 2016, he received a discounted price for his purchases as part of a private offering made to only a certain number of investors; the questions have been whether he received certain insider information from Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a company board member and its largest investor, and whether he got a special price when he bought $50,000 to $100,000 in shares last year.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Price received a "privileged" offer that he had mischaracterized in the hearings when he said such offers "were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time."

Standing outside his office as the markup was to begin, Wyden told reporters that Price's statements contradicted those by Wilkinson and other company officials.

"At a minimum," Wyden said, "I believe the committee should postpone this vote and talk to company officials."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he was conferring with party colleagues until late Monday night about how to proceed, and they ultimately decided to boycott.

"In some ways, we're doing President Trump a favor," Brown said. "If these nominees had been confirmed, and then these stories broke about how they lied, how they made money on foreclosures, how they made money off of sketchy health-care stock trades, this would have been a major scandal for the administration. Now it's just a problem we can fix."

Much of the drama of Tuesday morning unfolded along a fluorescent-lit hallway on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Wyden and Brown announced their plans to forego the finance panel's vote to a pack of reporters situated near Wyden's office and the committee room where angry Republicans fumed. A few steps away was the Judiciary Committee room, where Sessions's future was being debated and where at least pair of protesters were removed.

Shuttling between the two committees, Hatch told reporters he had no idea Democrats had planned to protest his hearing.

"That's one of the most pathetic things I've seen in my whole time in the Senate," he said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., added that the Democratic boycott of Price would make it difficult for Republicans to enact crucial elements of their agenda like revamping the Affordable Care Act.

"It gets a lot harder; we need him there," Thune said.

In the Judiciary hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other Democrats strongly defended Yates against Trump's claim that she had betrayed the Justice Department.

Yates' defiance of Trump "took guts," Feinstein said. "That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to have the courage to say no."

"I have no confidence that Sen. Sessions will do that," she added. "Instead, he has been the fiercest, most dedicated and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda."

Republicans defended Sessions, but said little about Trump's executive order. Democrats ended the hearing by using the obscure "two-hour" rule that permits either party to stop committees from meeting beyond the first two hours of the Senate's official day. During the Obama administration, Republicans used the same rule against Democratic Cabinet nominees.

In the Senate, Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, Democrats tried postponing the vote on DeVos, complaining she had just submitted written responses to hundreds of questions on Monday night and plagiarized some answers.

The panel then toiled over the actual vote on DeVos's nomination, with Democrats complaining that it shouldn't count because Hatch – a member of the committee who was simultaneously dealing with events in the Judiciary and Finance meetings – was allowed to submit a proxy vote. Without him in the room, the 23-member committee would have deadlocked. After a recess and several minutes of heated argument, Republicans ordered a revote with Hatch in the room and approved DeVos along party lines, 12 to 11.

Amid growing public concern with Trump's travel ban, which temporarily bars U.S. entry for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and for refugees worldwide, Democrats have faced louder calls from within their party to boldly confront the new administration.

"This is the exact right type of tactic for this moment," said Kurt Walters, the campaign director of the transparency group Demand Progress. "We're seeing someone who came into office with a historic popular vote loss come in and push a radical, unconstitutional agenda. Yes, radical and bold tactics are what senators should be using in response."

The Communications Workers of America labor union said in a statement that Senate Democrats "should keep it up. Americans deserve a government that will fight for them and the basic principles of integrity and honesty."

But further delays could have far-reaching consequences, as became evident on Monday night when the Justice Department was plunged into turmoil by Trump's decision to fire Yates, an Obama-era appointee, for refusing to defend his travel ban in federal court. In her place Trump installed Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is expected to hold the job until Sessions is confirmed as attorney general.

While senators toil over the qualifications and positions of Trump's nominees, he has started meeting with world leaders, reshaping immigration and trade policy and tasked congressional Republicans with overhauling the nation's health-care system – with most of the seats around the White House Cabinet Room still empty.

Schumer was unapologetic on Monday, telling the Spanish-language network Univision that "Senate Democrats, we're the accountability."

In a sign of the near-toxic level of tension between Democrats and Republicans, Schumer was one of the six Democrats to vote against confirming Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to lead the Transportation Department. Senate records show that no nominee for transportation secretary has earned so many "no" votes since at least Jimmy Carter's administration.

Amy Goldstein, Kimberly Kindy and David Weigel contributed to this report.