Democrats intensified their opposition to President Trump on Tuesday by further delaying the confirmations of several of his Cabinet nominees, prompting a bitter showdown with Republicans who accused them of paralyzing the formation of a new administration.
First, Democrats boycotted a Senate committee scheduled to take two votes, one on Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, and the other on Steve Mnuchin, his choice to lead the treasury. Then, they blocked a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
The theatrics reflected growing concern over Trump’s travel ban for refugees and foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, an order issued Friday with virtually no consultation with top government officials or senior lawmakers. In blocking Sessions, Democrats also cited the president’s firing Monday night of acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend the ban.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-
Calif.) and other Democrats strongly defended Yates against Trump’s claim that she had betrayed the Justice Department. Yates’s defiance of Trump “took guts,” Feinstein said.
“That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to stand up and say no.”
“I have no confidence that Sen. Sessions will do that,” she added. “Instead, he has been the fiercest, most dedicated and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda.”
Democrats alone lack the votes needed to block any of Trump’s nominees from taking office — and there are no signs of Republican opposition to any of his picks. In fact, Republicans lashed out at Democrats for what they described as partisan, obstructionist moves.
“It is time to get over the fact that they lost the election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “The president is entitled to have his Cabinet appointments considered. None of this is going to lead to a different outcome.”
That did nothing to tamp down enthusiasm among liberal activists and some Democratic lawmakers to mount a fierce resistance to Trump’s priorities. On the 12th day of Trump’s presidency, Democrats said they now plan to match growing anger in the streets by exhausting every mechanism at their disposal — even if it still results in Trump’s nominees taking office.
“Democrats are going to keep fighting back,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “We are going to stand with people across the country. And we will keep pushing Republicans to put country above party, and stand with us.”
That stance was met with praise from liberal activists, labor unions and constituents, who have been pressuring Democrats to mount more resistance to Trump.
“We’re seeing someone who came into office with a historic popular vote loss come in and push a radical, unconstitutional agenda,” said Kurt Walters, the campaign director of the transparency group Demand Progress. “Yes, radical and bold tactics are what senators should be using in response.”
During a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats criticized Trump for firing Yates and said that they would vote against Sessions out of concern that he would never similarly defy Trump in the face of a potentially unconstitutional act. Then they invoked an arcane rule to block the committee from holding a roll-call vote on the nomination, forcing Republicans to postpone the vote until Wednesday.
In a nearby hearing room, the Senate Finance Committee convened to vote on Mnuchin and Price. Democrats boycotted that meeting entirely, denying Republicans a necessary quorum and forcing them to reschedule both votes.
They had less success delaying confirmations elsewhere. They tried once again to stall a committee vote to advance Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, but Republicans prevailed on a party-line vote despite new revelations that her written responses to hundreds of questions from committee members appeared to include passages from uncited sources.
Senators also confirmed Elaine Chao to serve as Trump’s transportation secretary by a vote of 93 to 6 — although, in a sign of a new level of toxicity, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was among six members of the Democratic caucus who voted against her. Chao, who is also McConnell’s wife, is the first transportation secretary ever to earn “no” votes, according to a C-SPAN review of Senate records.
Additionally, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the nominations of former Texas governor Rick Perry to be energy secretary and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to be interior secretary — both with bipartisan majorities, sending them to the full Senate for final up-or-down votes.
Developments in the Judiciary and Finance committees, however, signaled how defiant Democrats remain in stalling Trump’s nominees. Most of the drama unfolded along a fluorescent-lit hallway on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sat at the dais with just three other Republican senators at the start of his hearing. Having just come from the Judiciary Committee, Hatch told his colleagues, “Jeff Sessions isn’t treated much better than these fellas are.”
“Some of this is just because they don’t like the president,” Hatch said, later adding that Democrats “ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots.”
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) agreed. “I think this is unconscionable,” he said.
“We did not inflict this kind of obstructionism on President Obama,” added Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), the only other senator in the room. He added that the Democrats were committing “a completely unprecedented level of obstruction. This is not what the American people expect of the United States Senate.”
In fact, in 2013, Republicans similarly boycotted a Senate committee’s vote on Gina McCarthy to serve as former president Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Senators said at the time that she had refused to answer their questions about transparency in the agency. Republicans did it again that year to one of Obama’s nominees to serve as a deputy secretary of homeland security. And throughout 2016, they blocked a hearing for Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
Aware of the growing national anger with Trump’s travel ban, Democratic senators began mulling their options over the weekend, aides said. In a series of interviews on Monday, Schumer threatened to jam the Senate calendar if Trump did not revoke his order or if Republicans did not allow a vote on legislation that would rescind it.
“Senate Democrats, we’re the accountability,” Schumer boasted in an interview with Spanish-
language network Univision.
Strategy discussions continued late into Monday night and coincided with two developments: first, Trump’s dramatic decision to fire Yates and a Wall Street Journal report on a discounted stock purchase by Price.
A series of stock buys Price made in an Australian company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, has brought Democratic scrutiny for weeks. In 2016, he received a discounted price for his purchases as part of a private offering made to only a certain number of investors; the questions have been whether he received certain insider information from Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a company board member and its largest investor, and whether he got a special price when he bought $50,000 to $100,000 in shares last year.
The Journal reported Monday that Price received a “privileged” offer that he had mischaracterized in the hearings when he said they “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”
Innate Immunotherapeutics chief executive Simon Wilkinson told The Washington Post on Monday that Price received the same 12 percent discount as about 620 shareholders in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, told reporters that Price’s statements contradicted those by Wilkinson and other company officials.
“At a minimum,” Wyden said, “I believe the committee should postpone this vote and talk to company officials.”
On Tuesday, shortly before the Finance Committee hearing began, committee Democrats huddled in Wyden’s office and agreed to boycott the meeting.
They also voiced several concerns about Mnuchin: He initially misstated his personal wealth on a financial disclosure form, and he misstated under oath how OneWest Bank, a bank he led as chairman and chief executive officer, scrutinized mortgage documents.
“In some ways, we’re doing President Trump a favor,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in explaining the boycott. “If these nominees had been confirmed, and then these stories broke about how they lied, how they made money on foreclosures, how they made money off of sketchy health-care stock trades, this would have been a major scandal for the administration. Now it’s just a problem we can fix.”
In the Judiciary hearing, Republicans defended Sessions but said little about Trump’s executive order. Democrats ended the hearing by using the obscure “two-hour” rule that permits either party to stop committees from meeting beyond the first two hours of the Senate’s official day. During the Obama administration, Republicans used the same rule against Democratic Cabinet nominees.
Then senators toiled over the actual vote on DeVos’s nomination. Democrats complained that the vote should not count because Hatch — a committee member who was simultaneously dealing with events in the Judiciary and Finance meetings — was allowed to submit a proxy vote. After a recess and several minutes of heated argument, Republicans ordered a new vote with Hatch in the room and approved DeVos along party lines, 12 to 11.
Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator, later marveled at having to rush back and forth between three contentious hearings.
“I lost some weight here today,” he quipped.
Further delays and high-level vacancies across federal agencies could have far-reaching consequences. Some Republicans complained that the slowdown of Price’s confirmation is hampering Republican plans to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Amy Goldstein, Kimberly Kindy and David Weigel contributed to this report.