Democratic leaders in the Senate promise a tooth-and-nail battle with Republicans over President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to a slew of senior cabinet positions. They’re calling for extensive financial reports, including tax returns, and demanding lengthy hearings with panels of witnesses and copious amounts of time for questions. They have also asked to limit the number of confirmation hearings that can be held in a single week.
Republicans, for their part, are envisioning an accelerated series of hearings and votes to have many of Trump’s picks installed by the time he is inaugurated or shortly after that.
In a statement on Sunday, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he planned to do everything in his power to slam on the brakes. “President-elect Trump is attempting to fill his rigged cabinet with nominees that would break key campaign promises and have made billions off the industries they’d be tasked with regulating.”
He continued, “Any attempt by Republicans to have a series of rushed, truncated hearings before Inauguration Day and before the Congress and public have adequate information on all of them is something Democrats will vehemently resist. If Republicans think they can quickly jam through a whole slate of nominees without a fair hearing process, they're sorely mistaken.”
But there’s a problem. Whether that is indeed Republicans’ intentions, it’s not clear the GOP would be “mistaken.” Schumer and his fellow Democrats in the Senate enter the 115th Congress in what is arguably the weakest position a minority facing a slate of new presidential nominees has ever faced.
In 2014, Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-NV) pulled the trigger on the long-threatened “nuclear option,” eliminating the filibuster for all presidential nominees other than Supreme Court Justices. When Republicans took over the Senate a few months later, they opted to keep Reid’s rule change in place.
That means that the Democratic minority has been stripped of its last-ditch defense -- preventing a vote on Trump’s nominees -- which makes Schumer’s vows of resistance ring hollow. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has little incentive to bow to a minority leader who possesses no real leverage.
(To the extent Schumer has leverage, it is over legislation, which is still subject to the filibuster. If threats against future GOP legislative priorities count as leverage in the battle over nominees, Schumer could be argued to have at least some influence over McConnell. However, the Republicans have already signaled their intention to pack some of their top priorities -- including a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and certain tax cuts -- into filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bills, which reduces the danger of seeing their agenda stymied.)
Democrats claim that the unique nature of the incoming Trump presidency -- one in which family members and a wide variety of friends and associates with no experience in government -- make it especially important to vet top nominees closely. Additionally, they argue, Trump’s outright refusal to release his tax returns, breaking with decades of precedent, makes the finances of his cabinet choices all the more relevant.
Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has been the target of particular attention, with Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD) demanding that he hand over his tax returns. That’s something that most cabinet nominees, except the Treasury Secretary and a handful of others, are not normally asked to do.
Democrats are promising to devote special attention to Tillerson, as well as to others nominees, including billionaire Betsy DeVos, an advocate of private sector educational initiatives who has been tapped to run the Department of Education, and fast food executive Andrew Puzder, who is set to run the Department of Labor.
In the end, though, the level of disruption Democrats can cause to the confirmation process will be limited primarily by how much Mitch McConnell wants to avoid negative news stories about the GOP steamrolling powerless Senate Democrats. Which is to say, Democrats probably won’t be able to do very much.
McConnell may throw Schumer a few bones in the interests of future cooperation, but barring a revolt among McConnell’s members, Trump’s cabinet will likely be in position in relatively short order.