President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees have sparked fierce fights in the Senate, but Democrats declined to go to the mat on one of his picks: former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon.
The businesswoman and two-time Republican Senate nominee from Connecticut was easily confirmed Tuesday morning to lead the Small Business Administration, with 81 senators voting in her favor. On the surface, that may seem surprising, given that Democrats have decried Trump’s nominees’ exorbitant wealth and their lack of governing experience.
McMahon does not have experience running a government agency, but she is the co-founder of the WWE, which she said employs more than 800 workers. She stepped down as CEO of the organization in 2009 and co-founded Women’s Leadership Live, which promotes female entrepreneurs. Forbes estimates she is worth around $1.16 billion.
Despite that lack of experience in government, Democrats say they found McMahon’s business experience relevant to the agency and her passion for the position came through in their private meetings.
“This wasn’t a job created for her; this is a job she wanted,” said Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a member of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
The backing of her former rivals was also key in garnering support for her nomination.
Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy, had both faced off against (and defeated) McMahon for their Senate seats. She spent nearly $100 million of her own money on the contests, according to The New York Times.
“You had two Democrats, both of whom had run against her or she had run against them, stand up and endorse her,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. “And I think obviously that makes a difference.”
Blumenthal and Murphy introduced McMahon at her confirmation hearing last month, and said they did so because she was qualified for the job.
“This visual is going to be a little amusing and surprising to folks in Connecticut who watched the three of us … over two long Senate campaigns,” Murphy said at the hearing. “But you know, politics can’t work if the political grudges never die, and political adversaries have to find a way to work together after the fight is over.”
Murphy explained after the vote Tuesday that McMahon stood out from some of Trump’s other nominees, some of whom have made past efforts to dismantle the very agencies they were nominated to run.
“For a lot of us, the test is, are these nominees qualified and are they radical in their views?” Murphy said. “I’ve had major disagreements with Linda McMahon, but she clearly has experience in business and generally, she is not radical in the views she’s bringing to SBA. She’s not coming to SBA to eliminate it. She’s coming to SBA to try to make it work better.”
That business experience was part of the reason her wealth was not as much of an issue as with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“With DeVos, it was her wealth combined with her lack of qualifications. With Mnuchin it was wealth combined with his record of treating his bank customers pretty miserably,” Murphy said. “So I think we’re all concerned about the billionaire Cabinet, but Linda didn’t have the baggage that some of these other nominees [had].”
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, said McMahon stood out from the other nominees because her goals coincided with those of the Small Business Administration, which provides financial assistance and other guidance for Americans starting and growing small businesses.
“Compared to a number of other Cabinet nominees whose careers were dedicated to undermining the agency they are charged with running, or who had demonstrably little to no experience in running a federal agency, she at least met those tests,” Coons said.
The temporary bipartisanship over Trump’s nominees will not last long, with two contentious nominations up next in the Senate: GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Trump’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, and Scott Pruitt, the EPA director-designee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also started the procedural motions to confirm four of Trump’s other nominees as well.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said he expected the Pruitt nomination to “take some time” unless senators reach a time agreement, meaning debate could be drawn out.
But Durbin’s counterpart on the Republican side, John Cornyn of Texas, was hopeful for agreements on upcoming nominations.
“We continue to talk and hope that some of these will break loose, like the McMahon and the [Veterans Affairs Secretary David] Shulkin one did,” Cornyn said. “There’s a couple which I think are controversial but many others that are not and at some point I hope that people … will agree with us to move these without going through all the procedural hoops.”