In Age of Trump, Chaos Reigns in the Senate

Tensions over basic procedures takes over chamber

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, right, speaks with aides during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday to vote on Georgia Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to be HHS secretary and Steven Mnuchin’s to be Treasury secretary. Democrats boycotted the votes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, right, speaks with aides during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday to vote on Georgia Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to be HHS secretary and Steven Mnuchin’s to be Treasury secretary. Democrats boycotted the votes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 31, 2017 at 5:26pm

The Senate reached a new level of dysfunction Tuesday, and that was even before the debate on filling the Supreme Court began.

“You know, ‘advice and consent’ doesn’t mean ram the nominees through … These nominees are not what Donald Trump promised and not what represent middle-class American values,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters, adding that it wasn’t enough to just vote against President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks.

“Our obligation constitutionally — advice and consent — is to thoroughly vet these nominees,” the New York Democrat said. “And if it goes a little longer, they could be in office for up to four years and it makes imminent sense to get their views out.”

In the Capitol, there was general consensus that chaos ruled on Tuesday. But who was at fault was in the eye of the beholder. Democrats blamed what they said was the Trump administration’s heavy-handed and incompetent manner and unanswered questions from nominees. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky put the fault squarely on Schumer and company.

“Let’s make sure everybody understands the source of chaos. The source of the chaos is the Democratic Conference here in the Senate. It is time to get over the fact that they lost the election. The president is entitled to have his Cabinet appointments considered,” McConnell said. “None of this is going to lead to a different outcome.”

Schumer was one of only a few who voted against confirming Elaine L. Chao to run the Department of Transportation, saying she did not answer questions about whether she approves of the administration’s executive order curtailing travel to the U.S. by nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The minority leader said he would vote against any nominee who does not adequately respond to questions about Friday’s executive order. But it was jarring, even in a less functional Senate, since Chao is McConnell’s wife.

The first sign of serious trouble Tuesday came when Democrats on the Finance Committee boycotted votes on Trump’s nominations of Georgia Rep. Tom Price to be Health and Human Services secretary and Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary.

[Democrats Boycott Vote on Price, Mnuchin]

Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch lambasted Democrats for holding up nominees they already announced they intended to oppose through a highly unusual, but by no means unprecedented, boycott.

“I think they ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots. Stop holding news conferences and come here and express yourself here and then vote,” the Utah Republican said. “I’d like to see somebody with courage on that other side.”

Democrats, on and off the Hill, said this was part of the continued blowback from the GOP decision to block President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court last year.

Finance Democrats, led by ranking member Ron Wyden of Oregon, could stall the committee’s work because of a rule that requires one minority member to be in attendance. Wyden said he and fellow Democrats had unanswered questions about both nominees, but also pointed to something broader happening outside the Capitol.

“I had five town hall meetings when there was more snow in Oregon on those days than any time since 1937. And there were big crowds in small communities,” he said. “The fact that there’s an enormous grass-roots juggernaut is very significant. People are involved.”

“I’ve always said political change is not top-down, it’s bottom-up, and I think you’ll see that again,” Wyden said.

Demonstrators opposing Trump nominees were inundating the Capitol switchboard with phone calls, and groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the League of Conservation Voters were gathering in person at the offices of key senators.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn suggested that some of what was driving the ongoing slowdown was pressure from the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

“So many of us have worked with Sen. Schumer a long time and he tends to be a pretty practical sort of person. But I realize he’s being pulled by the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren faction of his own party and is really unable to do the sort of basic things that always happen after elections,” the Texas Republican said. “Now it’s clear, both on the floor and through committee action, that they’re going to try and string this out as long as they can.”

After Hatch recessed the Finance markup, he planned to return to the Judiciary Committee, where Democrats used extraordinarily long opening statements to stall until Wednesday morning the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Some of the statements cited the extraordinary events of Monday night, when Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend the immigration order in court.

[Questions Abound After Firing of Acting AG]

When Republicans asked for more time to vote on the nomination, Democrats refused, pushing the vote to Wednesday morning.

But Hatch was needed at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where a procedural hornets’ nest enveloped Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Education secretary. 

The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said Chairman Lamar Alexander’s decision to go ahead with the markup was a “massive break with that strong bipartisan record, and it will dramatically impact our ability to work together in good faith going forward.”

Murray and the Democrats questioned whether Hatch’s proxy vote, which Alexander used to move the nomination forward initially on a 12-11 vote, was valid. Murray challenged the proxy vote, and it was determined that Hatch was needed in person for the nomination to move forward.

“Usually, when you have an election, people get over it. They haven’t gotten over this one,” Alexander said later. “I had to take two votes for Betsy DeVos, both of which are valid, in order to make sure that she got to the floor, which she did.”

Alexander, whom colleagues regard foremost as a legislator, hopes that this too shall pass.

“I would like to lower the temperature, because when we lower the temperature and work together, we get results. But it’s a testy time, and it probably will continue to be for a little while. We’ve got a Supreme Court nominee coming,” the Tennessee Republican said. “I’ll be happier when the temperature goes down and we get back to work reconciling our differences rather than exaggerating them.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.