WASHINGTON — With little power on their side to actually stop President Donald Trump from filling his cabinet with nominees they despise, Democrats once again boycotted a vote to move them forward, hoping to at least delay the formation of the new administration. And once again, Republicans changed the rules of the game to thwart them.
For the fourth day in a row, Democrats boycotted a nomination vote, this time on the confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. And for the second day in a row, a frustrated Republican chairman changed the rules requiring at least one Democrat to be present, and voted the nominee through anyway.
The same thing happened in the Senate Finance Committee, where Republicans approved the nominees of Rep. Tom Price to take over the Department of Health and Human Services and Steven Mnuchin to head the Treasury Department.
Now, all three of Trump's cabinet nominees are headed for votes on the Senate floor without any Democratic votes, where they will almost certainly be approved in the coming weeks. To be clear, Democrats would have opposed all three in committee as well, had they shown up, and the results would be the same, but perhaps would have come a day or two earlier.
Barrasso said Thursday that the committee rules change has been approved by the Senate Parliamentarian, essentially the keeper of the rules and referee on conflicts. In other words, if Democrats try to challenge the rules change, they will fail.
This is not normal. As Sen. John Barrasso, who chairs the committee overseeing Pruitt’s nomination, noted Tuesday, it’s unheard of for the minority party to boycott a confirmation vote on a nominee for an incoming president’s administration. Likewise, it’s uncommon for the majority (in this case, Republicans) to change the rules to vote nominees through anyway.
“We took this extraordinary step because the minority members of the committee took the extraordinary step of boycotting the business meeting to approve an EPA administrator for an incoming administration. … The minority has put us in this unchartered waters,” Barrasso said Thursday.
Republicans did, however, boycott President Obama’s nominee to head the EPA in 2013. But Barrasso argued Thursday that the two situations are very different: Gina McCarthy was a second-term pick to head the agency, and “it was not stopping President Obama from setting up his government,” Barrasso said, adding that “appointments were already at EPA advancing President Obama’s agenda.” Trump, however, has no one in place to lead the EPA. Acting Administration Catherine McCabe is a hold-out from the Obama administration.
Democrats say they are objecting to Pruitt’s nomination in part because he would not vow to recuse himself from any of the eight ongoing lawsuits he filed against the EPA while serving as attorney general. Additionally, Pruitt is an ally of the oil and gas industries who has declared himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Democrats say they have asked Pruitt to answer numerous questions on those issues and wanted to hold up his confirmation until they got answers.
But Barrasso argued Thursday that Democrats had had plenty of time to question Pruitt and that the move was more about objecting to Trump’s nominees, nearly across the board, than about the EPA nominee’s qualifications and background.
“The fact that he did not answer questions is a smokescreen,” Barrasso said. “Let me clear, the leadership of the minority chose to do a blanket boycott of many of the president’s nominees in committee across the Senate, regardless of their merit. The minority wants political theater and the nation needs a new EPA administrator.”
The same story played out in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, in which Democrats objected to both Price and Mnuchin’s nominations, saying they have not gotten sufficient response from either nominee on some touch points for the party. Democrats have raised concerns about whether Price profited off his own legislation through stockholdings in medical companies and about Mnuchin’s time as head of a mortgage lender that processed thousands of home foreclosures.
Despite those objections, all three will almost certainly be confirmed by the Senate. Republicans need 51 votes to approve of each nominee and they have 52 members in the Senate.