Wednesday is shaping up to be a blockbuster day in political news, with Senate confirmation hearings scheduled for six of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees in addition to the President-elect holding his first press conference since July in midtown Manhattan.
That stacked schedule has some senior Democrats crying foul. They argue that, with the attention of the public and the political press divided between cities and hearings, Republicans will have an easier time forcing through some of the President-elect’s more controversial appointees.
“They’re jamming them together so that they receive less scrutiny and attention individually,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Real Clear Politics.
Incoming presidents must fill hundreds of policy positions that require Senate confirmation, and top Cabinet positions are typically prioritized for early hearings. Now that Senate Democrats are in the minority, their 2013 move to eliminate the filibuster for Cabinet appointees leaves them with far less leverage to derail these hearings and far more reliant on media scrutiny to gin up opposition to individual nominees.
“The rules are different this time round,” Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in political appointments, told TPM in an email. “The Republican minority in 2009 still could prevent a vote as 60 votes were needed to close off discussion. With that power, they had more influence over hearing scheduling.”
O’Connell added that the nominees chosen by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush “went through far more vetting before their nominations were even announced. Here, we have nominees with far less vetting by the President-Elect’s team. So the scrutiny now is more important.”
The Office of Government Ethics is overwhelmed by the crowded schedule, according to its director. In a letter sent Saturday to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), ethics office director Walter Shaub, Jr. said OGE has yet to complete reviews of several nominees, leaving open the possibility that they have “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.”
“I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process,” Shaub wrote in the letter.
Schumer said Thursday on the Senate floor that he brought his concerns about Wednesday’s packed schedule to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), noting that it was “mostly unprecedented in the modern era of Cabinet considerations.”
Early confirmation hearing days are typically quite busy, but the only other time in recent history that six confirmation hearings were held in the same day was two days prior to George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) accused Democrats of “whining” over the schedule, telling Real Clear Politics that they should “work with us to try to get these people vetted and confirmed” rather than “posturing and dragging their feet.”
Both Democrats on Capitol Hill and liberal advocacy groups have said they hoped to use the confirmation process to draw attention to the nominees they disapprove of, including ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who was tapped for secretary of state, and Betsy DeVos, a billionaire charter school advocate nominated for education secretary.
They fear their objections will be drowned out by a news day that will see hearings for not only Tillerson and DeVos, but also transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao, department of homeland security nominee Gen. John Kelly, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Trump’s pick to lead the CIA.
The second confirmation hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, is also scheduled for Wednesday.
A number of those hearings will be held simultaneously, forcing some senators who sit on multiple committees leading the hearings to scramble between them.
Meanwhile, Trump is expected to answer questions about how he will manage his real estate empire while in office at a press conference in New York City. In December, the President-elect abruptly canceled a scheduled presser to discuss his future plans for the Trump Organization, and he only announced last week that it would be rescheduled for Jan. 11.
Trump’s transition team did not respond to TPM’s request for comment about whether it took the Senate confirmation hearing schedule into account when arranging the press conference.
Aside from Wednesday’s blockbuster confirmation hearing schedule, Democrats were still expected to delay scheduling votes on confirming those nominees until as late as March, according to the Washington Post.
O’Connor, the Berkeley professor, noted that Republicans used a similar tactic after Democrats killed the filibuster in 2013: submitting written questions to nominees after the hearings to slow down the confirmation process.
Matt Dull, a professor at Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy who researches political appointments, said that tactic would deprive the incoming administration of the “early wins” it hopes to achieve by pushing nominees through with stacked confirmation hearings.
“Getting cabinet level appointees confirmed will help reassure people that there are adults in the room—and that the administration actually can govern,” Dull told TPM.
Deprived of their ability to filibuster and control over scheduling, delaying votes is the only power move Democrats have left.