Early Signs of ‘Nuclear Warfare’ in Clashes Over Trump’s Cabinet Picks
Policy + Politics

Early Signs of ‘Nuclear Warfare’ in Clashes Over Trump’s Cabinet Picks

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

There is mounting speculation that Senate Republicans will invoke the “nuclear option” and change the rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering President Trump’s nomination of federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Even before Trump formally announced his choice of Gorsuch at a White House ceremony Tuesday night, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and his colleagues declared that Gorsuch’s conservative judicial record was outside the “legal mainstream” and warned that their party may end up blocking the nomination, which will require at least 60 votes to pass in a chamber where the GOP currently holds a 52 to 48 seat majority.

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If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ultimately decides to pull the pin on the “nuclear option” by changing the Senate rules to require just a simple majority to approve a Supreme Court nomination, Democrats and their allies warn that all hell will break loose on the Senate floor.

But while that possibility is weeks or even months away from fruition, we’re already seeing miniature versions of nuclear warfare—a strategy implemented by then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who bypassed the GOP House to approve Obama’s judicial nominees. If eliminating the filibuster in the case of Supreme Court nominations is considered the ICBM of political options, there are already tactical nukes going off throughout the U.S. Capitol.

In a major show of force, Senate Finance Committee Republicans led by chair Orrin Hatch of Utah rammed through the highly controversial nominations of Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) as secretary of health and human services and Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary without a single Democratic member present.

For the second day in a row, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and other Democrats boycotted the Finance Committee session to delay action on the two nominations, demanding further probing of allegations of ethical breaches and improper stock transactions.

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Price’s $300,000 worth of investments in health care-related companies has sparked Democratic criticism that he engaged in insider trading as a member of the Ways and Means health subcommittee and gave misleading testimony about his involvement in what amounted to a sweetheart stock deal with an Australian company, Innate Immunotherapeutics.

Mnuchin, the wealthy businessman, meanwhile got into trouble by understating his personal wealth on a financial disclosure form and then gave misleading testimony before the committee on how a bank he once headed, OneWest Bank, scrutinized mortgage documents.

By unanimous consent, the Republicans gathered in the Finance Committee hearing room this morning, agreed to change the committee’s standing rules, which require at least one member of each party to be in attendance for committee work to proceed. “It’s just another way of roughing up the president’s nominees,” Hatch complained. “They have been treated fairly. We have not been treated fairly.”

Wyden told reporters, “We made it clear yesterday that when we got answers to these questions, we’re ready to move ahead,” adding that “We’re going to keep pushing to get the facts.”

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Those nominations now head to the Senate floor, which has become a cauldron of controversy over the qualifications of Trump’s cabinet picks and his executive order last week imposing a travel ban to the United States for refugees and foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. “It is time to get over the fact that they lost the election,” McConnell scolded the Democrats. “The president is entitled to have his cabinet appointments considered. None of this is going to lead to a different outcome.”

Schumer and the Democrats have no way of permanently blocking Trump’s choices for Cabinet posts, and practically all should eventually make it through the process. So far, however, only three of Trump’s 15 nominees have won confirmation by the Senate: Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security secretary John Kelly and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

That leaves some of Trump’s most controversial nominees for clearance, including restaurant businessman Andy Puzder for labor secretary, billionaire Republican operative Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to head the Office of Management and Budget, and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be the next Attorney General.

By this time eight years ago, former President Barack Obama had won Senate confirmation of practically all 15 of his cabinet picks.

Senate Republicans’ decision to play hardball in forcing through Trump’s nominees comes at a time when partisan rancor on Capitol Hill is reaching a boiling point. Hatch, the Finance Committee chair, on Tuesday went after Democrats on the committee in unusually angry language on the first day of their boycott.

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“Well, they are idiots,” Hatch said. “It’s just complete breach of decorum, a complete breach of committee rules, a complete breach of just getting along around here.”

In an extraordinary showdown in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken accused Sessions of misrepresenting his record on civil rights. He also accused fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas of abetting the deception.

This led to an intensely angry exchange between Franken and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Majority Whip, that came right before a final 11 to 9 party-line vote that sent Sessions’ nomination for attorney general to the full Senate. The hearing was also disrupted by protesters decrying Sessions’ civil rights record.

The intrusion of protesters into the hearing gives a clue as Democrats’ motives for ramping up opposition to Trump’s picks, from cabinet nominees to an expected filibuster of Gorsuch, the Federal Appeals Court judge who the president nominated to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night: Their voter base is furious.

Already mad about an election in which Trump won the presidency despite a decisive popular vote loss, Democrats’ anger only surged as Trump rolled out cabinet picks that, at times, seemed intended to provoke them. He wants to place a climate change denier at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, and an advocate of abolishing the minimum wage at the Labor Department. His nominee to run the Department of Education has no background in public education aside from longstanding support of plans to privatize it.

Hundreds of thousands of marchers advocating women’s rights descended on the capital just 24 hours after Trump was sworn in. Seven days later, when the administration announced an executive order banning refugees from entering the country and restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim nations, mass protests erupted in the streets of major American cities.

Prominent activists began delivering the message to Democrats in no uncertain terms: the only acceptable response to the Trump presidency is resistance.

Ben Wikler, Washington director of the liberal group Moveon.org, told Real Clear Politics that Democrats who don’t fight back against Trump will face a “firestorm” of criticism. “The anti-Trump resistance is going to make the Tea Party seem like a tempest in a teapot,” he added.

There were plenty of high profile vows to mount primary challenges against any Democrats who offer support or cover to Trump on nominees like Sessions or Gorsuch.

And the partisan warfare seems only likely to escalate. On Wednesday morning, Trump went before the television cameras and said that if Gorsuch faces Democratic resistance in the Senate he wants the Republican Majority to fire their biggest weapon of all: elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.