September’s packed legislative calendar means the focus will be on how to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government funded, but President Donald Trump still has numerous vacant positions across his administration.
Trump tweeted last week that he wasn’t looking to fill all of those positions. But no shortage of posts requiring Senate confirmation still need to be filled, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept up work on that front.
While a big package of nominees got through with bipartisan backing just before the start of the summer break, many are still awaiting confirmation.
The most notable may be the top job at the Department of Homeland Security. John F. Kelly’s shift to the White House to be chief of staff has left Elaine C. Duke as acting secretary.
Duke, who was confirmed by the Senate in April as deputy secretary, has substantial experience as a federal employee, including overseeing management functions at the DHS. While it would not be surprising to see Duke nominated to lead the department overseeing the federal response to Hurricane Harvey, that nomination has not happened.
Many of the nominations that could be in the queue for September come from the Foreign Relations Committee. According to a Roll Call analysis, 20 of 91 vacant ambassadorial posts had been filled through the beginning of the August recess.
Eight career diplomats are currently awaiting confirmation to ambassadorships or other positions at that rank, and eight political appointees are awaiting Senate action to get them into similar positions.
Among the nominees who cleared the committee process but were not confirmed before the August recess is Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Trump has tapped to be ambassador to the Vatican.
Some significant positions are not even that far along in the process, including a pick for ambassador to South Korea. That job has become more significant with the increasing provocations by North Korea, including its launch last week of a missile that arced over the northern part of Japan.
Victor Cha is the reported choice, but paperwork has not been received by the Senate. He’s an expert on North Korea who was director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
McConnell will likely intersperse the September calendar with nominations as time allows between big-ticket legislative business.
That will be evident from the outset, with Tuesday evening’s first vote on the confirmation of Timothy J. Kelly to be a federal district judge in Washington, D.C.
Kelly is a known quantity in the Senate, since he has been working as chief counsel for national security and senior crime counsel for the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.
Grassley will be seeking to move several of the more contentious Trump nominees to the federal bench toward floor consideration in September as well. The Judiciary panel has set a Wednesday hearing on nominees including Amy Barrett and Joan Larsen, who have been nominated for federal appeals court judgeships.
But the rush of upcoming deadlines means the efforts to confirm members of Trump’s administration will likely have to take a back seat at some point in September.
Fall Senate Forecast
The first major legislative business is expected to be the fiscal 2018 defense policy bill, which is set to arrive on the floor against the backdrop of Trump’s announcement over the recess that U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan will increase.
Sen. Rand Paul objected to quick action on the bill before senators departed for recess. The Kentucky Republican has already announced his intent to try to force debate on the underlying authorization for the use of force that dates back to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I have an amendment that I will insist be considered that would repeal the 2001 AUMF on Afghanistan,” Paul wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill last month. “That AUMF is outdated, overcome by events, and provides a feeble bit of cover for people who still want to be there.”
But the defense debate will be mild compared to what awaits lawmakers on providing urgent funding for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, keeping the government’s doors open past Sept. 30, and raising the federal debt limit.
McConnell has been resolute that there will be no default on the nation’s debt.
“There is zero chance — no chance — we won’t raise the debt ceiling. No chance. America is not going to default, and we’ll get the job done in conjunction with the secretary of the Treasury,” he said at an Aug. 21 event in Louisville, Kentucky, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The ability of McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to work together will be crucial to any agreement resolving disaster funding, a stopgap spending bill, and the debt ceiling increase, since 60 votes are going to be needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
And while an omnibus spending bill became law earlier this year, debt limit legislation is the first time Schumer and McConnell will partner on something as crucial as maintaining the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.