With Nominations Slog, Senators Kill Time They Have to Kill

Around-the-clock sessions on nominations provide cover for lack of big legislation

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn have plenty to do to keep the chamber busy until the big-ticket legislation packages are ready for consideration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn have plenty to do to keep the chamber busy until the big-ticket legislation packages are ready for consideration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 7, 2017 at 5:00am

The slog of Senate floor votes on Cabinet nominations could easily drag into the weekend, but there’s a difference between something taking a long time and there being any suspense.

All-night sessions like the one aimed at Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Education secretary, might become the norm. But there’s only so much pending Senate business for the talkathons to actually delay.

Until Republicans can coalesce behind a budget reconciliation bill that aims to gut the 2010 health care law, there’s a scarce amount of legislating to be done on the Senate floor.

That’s in part because both parties seem resigned to operating in a majority-rules environment, at least for now. And that’s a departure from the traditional Senate environment, where 60 votes to break procedural hurdles was almost always required.

“Obviously, the stuff we’re doing now is at the 51-vote threshold,” Majority Whip John Cornyn said last week.

“Through the budget and through the repeal of Obamacare, replacement, and then the tax bill coming out of the second reconciliation bill,” the Texas Republican said of the reconciliation instructions that will provide the GOP with the easiest route to get its policy agenda up and running.

The steady stream of simple-majority votes on nominations, as well as resolutions disapproving of Obama administration regulations and the budget votes, mean that no Senate deal-making has yet been necessary.

Add to that Cornyn’s supposition of largely majoritarian exercises for an overhaul of the tax code, and it could mean this is the norm for much of the first half of the year.

But Cornyn was well-aware that will change once Trump’s Cabinet is in place and the big-ticket legislative items advance.

“Then, of necessity, if we’re going to make progress after we’re out of the 51-vote environment, it’s going to require bipartisan cooperation. So, I remain hopeful,” Cornyn said.

The alternative to a long slog of confirmation votes and resolutions of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act? It might be endless quorum calls and failed cloture votes on political messaging bills.

Senate Democrats Plan an All-Nighter Against DeVos

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But none of that will be necessary, at least for now, given the Democrats’ hardened position on nominees. Starting with Tuesday’s confirmation of DeVos to be Education secretary, the Senate’s agenda is set for the week.

The decision by Democrats to slow Trump’s executive-branch nominees will bring long hours over the coming weeks, but it will also bring an unusual degree of certainty to the schedule.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer opened the floor Monday by imploring GOP senators to change their minds about DeVos from the way they voted at dawn Friday, when they signed off on limiting debate time for DeVos’ nomination.

“I ask my Republican colleagues to look into their consciences and cast their votes tomorrow not based on party, but based on whether or not Ms. DeVos is qualified to be our nation’s leader on education policy,” the New York Democrat said.

Barring any surprises, Senate rules spell out the process for confirming DeVos, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, Georgia Rep. Tom Price to be secretary of Health and Human Services, and Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary, all this week.

After the DeVos confirmation vote, senators will vote right away on limiting debate on Trump’s choice of Sessions to lead the Justice Department. Then, after up to 30 hours of further deliberation, they’ll vote to confirm their colleague from Alabama.

Senators would then vote immediately on limiting debate on Price, wait for another 30 hours, and vote to install him at Health and Human Services. The same course of events would then repeat for Mnuchin.

Democrats are seeking to bleed the clock to keep Republicans from putting points on the board early. But, to stay with the sports metaphor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to install the big legislative plays in his 2017 offense.

Committee chairmen — call them coordinators and position coaches — have yet to draft much new legislation. And there’s certainly not on the shelf any workable repeal of the health care law or a supplemental appropriations bill to fund construction of a multibillion-dollar wall on the Mexican border.

McConnell blasted Democrats for stalling Trump nominees again Monday, saying the pace of confirmations “has far less to do with the nominees before us than the man who appointed them.”

In the meantime, McConnell and the GOP are mixing the protracted confirmation votes with resolutions of disapproval. The Senate passed one of those resolutions Friday, blocking a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring disclosures about royalties and other payments to foreign governments by oil and gas companies.

“Obviously, over-regulation has been a constant complaint around the country and one of the reason’s the economy’s not doing as well as it could. So this is one tool we have available to us. So we’re going to do a number of these,” Cornyn said last week.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.