Hours after the swearing-in of a President Donald J. Trump, Democrats and Republicans in Congress quickly clashed in a battle over Mr. Trump’s Cabinet nominations, as the Senate approved two top choices of President Trump, but Democrats refused to allow a vote until next week on his choice for a CIA Director.
“I am pleased by the confirmation votes of Generals Mattis and Kelly,” the President said in his first written statement issued by the White House.
“I am proud to have these two American heroes join my administration,” he added.
But Mr. Trump also made clear his displeasure that more of his selections weren’t acted on, as Democrats blocked a vote on Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), his pick for CIA Director.
“I call on members of the Senate to fulfill their constitutional obligation and swiftly confirm the remainder of my highly qualified cabinet nominees, so that we can get to work on behalf of the American people without further delay.”
Republican Senators echoed that assessment, pointing the finger directly at Democrats.
“I think this is a mistake,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “I think it is irresponsible to leave the CIA without a Director for any period of time – when you can avoid it,” Graham told reporters just off the Senate floor.
The Senate voted 98-1 for James Mattis to be Secretary of Defense, and 88-11 for John Kelly to be the head of the Department of Homeland Security.
“With these choices, President Trump has made clear that he is serious about rebuilding our military, defeating ISIS, and protecting the safety and security of the American people,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
But while Mattis and Kelly won confirmation, the lack of action on Trump CIA nomination left Republicans in the Senate aggravated.
“Today’s political drama is both pointless and dangerous,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).
“This just makes no sense,” said a frustrated Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).
“What’s the point here?” asked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “Is the point, we’re just going to show the Republicans by slow-walking their nominees? Is that what the point of this is?”
Democrats – mainly Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), said they wanted more debate, and refused to allow a final vote on Rep. Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
“This is about whether the Senate is going to be a rubber stamp,” said Wyden, who argued that the Senate had never before voted to approve a CIA Director on the first day of a new administration.
The Senate did vote 89-8 to begin debate on the Pompeo nomination, showing that he was likely to win confirmation by a wide margin next week.
It wasn’t clear which nomination would be next up on the Senate floor after Pompeo next week; several high profile nominations will be taken up by Senate committees on Monday and Tuesday, like Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.
But those don’t seem likely to advance immediately to the Senate floor, as Democrats could move to “hold over” the nominations for an extra week of review..
While the rules change in 2013 by Senate Democrats – the “nuclear option” – makes it more difficult to block a Cabinet choice, the rules of the Senate still allow any Senator to slow things to a crawl, and that means other Trump nominees could well be delayed.
For example, if Republicans were to try to start debate on another nominee on Monday night, here is a little primer on how the Senate rules can stand in the way:
1) Republicans try to bring up nomination on Monday; Democrats object
2) Republicans file cloture to end debate; that can’t be voted on until Wednesday
3) Once debate is shut off on Wednesday, there are 30 hours of post-cloture debate available
4) That would mean no final vote until Friday
As you can see in that one theoretical example, it can literally take one work week to get one Cabinet nomination through the Senate – there are ways to speed it up, by convening the Senate after midnight, holding votes at 1:01 am and more – but we’ll see if that has to happen in the weeks ahead.
One reminder – Democrats don’t feel too bad about delaying these votes, as they’re still mad over the Republicans preventing a vote on Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee of President Obama, whose nomination was never acted on by the GOP Senate last year.
In other words – payback is hell, whether it is on the football field or in the Senate.
Earlier on Friday, President Trump had tried to cajole Senate Democrats – and especially Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer – to move forward on those nominations.
“Our Cabinet is lined up and ready,” Mr. Trump said at a lunch with lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol after his Inauguration.
“I know eventually Chuck is going to approve them, I’m sure,” the new President said, drawing some chuckles in the room.
Schumer though wasn’t going easy on Mr. Trump, as called for “rigorous debate” on his nominations.
And that could well happen in coming weeks.