GOP plan for quick confirmations slowed by complicated background checks
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.”