GOP plan for quick con­fir­ma­tions slowed by com­pli­cated back­ground checks

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ED O’KEEFE AND EMMA BROWN ed.okeefe@wash­post.com emma.brown@wash­post.com

Repub­li­cans’ fast-paced plans to con­firm Don­ald Trump’s Cab­i­net nom­i­nees were up­ended Tues­day amid Democratic pres­sure to slow the sched­ule as a fed­eral ethics watch­dog re­view­ing nom­i­nees’ back­grounds warned that it could take months to probe some of the wealth­ier picks.

Hearings for Trump’s nom­i­nees be­gan Tues­day with con­sid­er­a­tion of Sen. Jeff Ses­sions (RAla.) to serve as at­tor­ney gen­eral and re­tired Marine Gen. James Kelly to serve as home­land se­cu­rity sec­re­tary.

But the sched­ule for a packed day of pro­ceed­ings on Wed­nes­day was re­vised late Mon­day, when the Se­nate health and ed­u­ca­tion panel post­poned a hear­ing on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, un­til next week. The com­mit­tee also an­nounced that a sched­uled hear­ing next week with Andrew Puzder, Trump’s choice for la­bor sec­re­tary, might not hap­pen un­til Fe­bru­ary be­cause of sched­ul­ing con­flicts.

The Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee also post­poned un­til Thurs­day a hear­ing for Rep. Mike Pom­peo (R-Kan.) to serve as CIA di­rec­tor. The panel had orig­i­nally sched­uled Pom­peo for Wed­nes­day.

As a re­sult, a once-jammed cal­en­dar of hearings on Wed­nes­day will fea­ture just three: a sec­ond day for Ses­sions, a Foreign Relations Com­mit­tee hear­ing with Rex Tiller­son, Trump’s choice for sec­re­tary of state, and a Com­merce Com­mit­tee hear­ing with Elaine L. Chao, the nom­i­nee for trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary.

There were no in­di­ca­tions Tues­day that any of Trump’s Cab­i­net choices are at risk of be­ing re­jected by the Se­nate — a rare oc­cur­rence — and Repub­li­can lead­ers con­tin­ued to in­sist that all of Trump’s choices would be con­firmed. But the cal­en­dar changes fol­lowed days of Repub­li­can as­sur­ances that hearings would com­mence quickly and si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

“We are in the process of hav­ing all the hearings as rapidly as we can,” Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) said Tues­day. “It is still my hope that re­gard­less of the hear­ing sched­ule, some of which has been moved slightly, we will be in po­si­tion to con­firm a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the pres­i­dent’s nom­i­nees on Day One.”

McCon­nell said he es­pe­cially hopes to have most if not all of Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity team in place on the first day of his pres­i­dency.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the cham­ber’s third-rank­ing Repub­li­can, ex­plained that the de­ci­sion to de­lay some hearings “is re­ally more try­ing to ac­com­mo­date the vol­ume that we’re hav­ing this week as well as the need to get ad­di­tional pa­per­work in. I ex­pect that an­other week is about as much as you can ex­pect this to be de­layed.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who will lead Tiller­son’s hear­ing Wed­nes­day as chair­man of the foreign relations panel, said he un­der­stood some of the Democrats’ con­cerns.

“On one hand, you don’t want the other side of the aisle to set your sched­ule, on the other hand you want to be flex­i­ble and to try to ac­com­mo­date,” he said, not­ing that he sched­uled the Tiller­son hear­ing weeks ago in co­op­er­a­tion with Democrats.

Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had been pres­sur­ing McCon­nell to re­con­sider the packed sched­ule. He never sug­gested that Trump’s choices would be de­feated but rather that Democrats de­serve more time to re­view them more care­fully.

On Tues­day, Schumer called McCon­nell’s plans to de­lay the hearings “a very good first step.”

“This pro­posed Cab­i­net is un­like any other in terms of its wealth, cor­po­rate con­nec­tions and hard-right ide­o­log­i­cal views, and the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve noth­ing less than open and de­lib­er­ate hearings go­ing for­ward,” Schumer said in a state­ment. “Democrats will do ev­ery­thing we can to make sure that hap­pens.”

Schumer’s ar­gu­ments for de­lay were buoyed last week­end by Wal­ter M. Shaub Jr., di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Gov­ern­ment Ethics, who com­plained to sen­a­tors that his agency was strug­gling to re­view the ex­ten­sive back­grounds of so many wealthy Trump nom­i­nees who had never been sub­jected to pub­lic scru­tiny.

As of Mon­day, the OGE had re­leased re­ports for five top picks sub­ject to hearings this week: Chao, Pom­peo, Ses­sions, Tiller­son and de­fense nom­i­nee James Mat­tis, whose con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing is sched­uled for Thurs­day. But the agency had not posted re­ports for the four oth­ers: DeVos, Kelly, com­merce nom­i­nee Wil­bur Ross and Ben Car­son, tapped to lead the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment.

Full vet­ting of a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee’s fi­nan­cial hold­ings can take “weeks” and “some­times months” in the case of ex­tremely wealthy in­di­vid­u­als, Shaub ex­plained in a let­ter to Sen. Patty Mur­ray (D-Wash.) re­leased Tues­day.

Shaub said the length of a re­view varies, depend­ing on the nom­i­nee’s re­spon­sive­ness to ques­tions, the com­plex­ity and ex­tent of his or her fi­nan­cial hold­ings, and the time it takes the nom­i­nee to con­sider and agree to steps that the OGE iden­ti­fies as nec­es­sary to re­solve con­flicts.

“It usu­ally takes even the most re­spon­sive nom­i­nees time to gather the in­for­ma­tion they are re­quired to pro­duce, par­tic­u­larly if they are wealthy,” Shaub wrote to Mur­ray. “Some nom­i­nees also find it dif­fi­cult to un­tan­gle their com­plex fi­nan­cial in­vest­ments and em­ploy­ment ar­range­ments quickly, es­pe­cially if they wish to do so with­out in­cur­ring oth­er­wise avoid­able fi­nan­cial losses.”

As part of Schumer’s pres­sure cam­paign, he trolled McCon­nell on so­cial me­dia — post­ing a doc­tored ver­sion of a 2009 let­ter McCon­nell sent to then-Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) com­plain­ing about a rushed sched­ule of con­fir­ma­tion hearings for Pres­i­dent Obama’s nom­i­nees. In the let­ter, sent af­ter the first batch of Obama’s picks had been con­firmed, McCon­nell asked Reid to en­sure that fu­ture hearings would not be held un­til af­ter ethics and crim­i­nal back­ground checks were com­pleted and re­viewed by sen­a­tors.

Schumer opted to make the same ar­gu­ment to McCon­nell, so he changed “Dear Harry” to “Dear Mitch,” changed the date on the let­ter and sent it back to the Repub­li­can leader Mon­day af­ter­noon.

DeVos’s hear­ing, orig­i­nally sched­uled to take place Wed­nes­day morn­ing, has been resched­uled for Jan. 17 at 5 p.m.

Democrats ob­jected loudly to the fact that DeVos’s hear­ing was sched­uled to oc­cur be­fore the OGE could fin­ish her ethics re­view. But a joint Repub­li­canDemo­cratic state­ment from the com­mit­tee an­nounc­ing the sched­ule change said that the panel had moved the date “at the re­quest of the Se­nate lead­er­ship to ac­com­mo­date the Se­nate sched­ule.”

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