When Bill Clinton was sworn into office 24 years ago, every single member of his Cabinet but one was confirmed by the Senate within two days. When Donald Trump is sworn in on Friday, he’ll be lucky to have half that many installed.
With Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate, it wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for Trump to get his team in place posthaste, especially since Democrats did away with the 60-vote requirement for Cabinet nominees. But all signs are pointing to a slog for Trump and the Senate GOP, even if Republicans believe eventually all of Trump’s picks will be approved.
“We were presented with the problem that the Trump administration was basically unprepared for presenting a Cabinet,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “They compounded that problem by picking both billionaires with enormously complicated financial situations, and people who have enormous conflicts of interests.”
Trump made his Cabinet selections in rapid fire after the election, but has been hampered since by ethics complications for some of them, Democratic opposition and an unforgiving calendar. His Cabinet is now on track to take the longest to fill since George H.W. Bush’s in 1989, according to an analysis by POLITICO of the confirmation process of the last five presidents.
Trump will also likely face by far the most dissenting votes from the Senate minority of any new administration in history.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are in negotiations about approving much of Trump’s national security team on Friday, potentially giving him a defense secretary, a CIA chief and homeland security head on Day One. A few of his less controversial nominees may also be approved soon after, including Elaine Chao as transportation secretary and Ben Carson as housing and urban development head.
But after that, it looks like a major traffic jam. And next week’s congressional retreat and a spate of hearings that were recently postponed could combine to slow the approval process for weeks or longer. What’s more, on Tuesday evening Schumer came to the floor to denounce the GOP for limiting questioning of education secretary hopeful Betsy DeVos to five minutes per senator, predicting it could slow the entire confirmation process to a crawl.
“We feel very strongly there ought to be another hearing [for DeVos],” Schumer said. “This will affect how the rest of the nominees will go forward.”
Several prominent confirmation hearings are scheduled for after Trump’s takes office, including for Rep. Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Democrats can use parliamentary tactics to delay Cabinet confirmations for several days apiece, and any one individual senator can force McConnell to jump through procedural hoops and burn the Senate’s time before holding a confirmation vote.
“Their ultimate goal is to slow this thing down. And we can’t let them,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
While Cornyn and other GOP leaders are confident that Republicans will band together and approve Trump’s entire Cabinet using their 52-seat majority, the ride looks rocky.
A Trump transition official said staff members were aggressively calling senators to make the case for Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson, focusing on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “in particular.” Democrats are hoping to hobble Price over stock trades he made while in Congress, labor secretary choice Andrew Puzder over domestic abuse allegations and treasury hopeful Steve Mnuchin over his bank’s foreclosure practices.
The senior Trump transition official said all three were ready for a fight, and that rumors that any would drop out were not true. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Puzder and Price are the “most challenging” right now, but predicted they will eventually be confirmed.
Republicans spent Tuesday rallying around the embattled Price, a conservative House member whom the GOP desperately need to be confirmed to help the party repeal and replace Obamacare. Price is accused of trading stocks whose value was affected by legislation he worked on in Congress.
“Tom Price’s stock? No. If he’s done something insider, I’d love to hear it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I have not heard anything that disqualifies him.”
Other confirmation hearings were delayed because the Cabinet picks had not reached agreements to resolve ethical conflicts stemming from their financial holdings. Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub said that’s an aftereffect of Trump not vetting his nominees ahead of time.
Democrats have used the slow-moving ethics process as justification to criticize some of Trump’s selections. Whitehouse said that just hours before DeVos was set for her confirmation hearing he received a thick stack of her papers, which he had little time to review before. DeVos’ hearing, along with that of billionaire Wilbur Ross’ hearing to be commerce secretary, were both postponed last week.
But Republicans say Democrats will pay politically if they further draw out the confirmation process.
“If Sen. Schumer tries to slow down, I think he will regret it,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush’s Cabinet had no confirmations on Inauguration Day, mainly because the transition was from another GOP administration so there was less pressure to move swiftly. That year, some Cabinet nominees were confirmed as late as March.
But Trump is not keeping on any of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet secretaries, and the transition between administrations looks sure to be hobbled in the early days by Senate’s infighting. A Trump transition official said his team is hoping to get as many as seven nominees confirmed by voice vote on Friday, but Republican and Democratic sources said there’s little chance of hitting that mark. Trump hasn’t even made a choice for his agriculture secretary.
There were just seven confirmation hearings last week, limiting how many nominees can be confirmed soon. And several, like Jeff Sessions to be attorney general and Tillerson, have no chance of being approved later this week. Sessions’ committee vote won’t occur until after Trump is sworn in and Tillerson’s nomination is “controversial,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), which means a speedy vote should not be expected.
“I’m for moving as quickly as we can,” Cardin said. “But that one will take a floor debate.”
Though there are another seven confirmation hearings for Cabinet or Cabinet-level nominees this week, it would be stretch for them to be ready for floor action by Friday. But Republicans are trudging on, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) scheduling a Feb. 2 committee hearing for Puzder a day after CNN reported that the labor secretary pick is having “second thoughts” about remaining in the running for the job.
“I think they all make it through,” said Tom Quinn, a Democratic lobbyist who has met with Trump since the election. But “some of the [nominees] will really get roughed up.”
If Democrats fight the GOP tooth and nail, it could be more than a month before Trump gets his 15 Cabinet secretaries and six cabinet-level slots filled—- and potentially a lot longer for him to begin installing deputy-level officials that often run the department while the secretary serves as the public face.
“I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Let’s drag this out as long as possible,’” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Asked how long it could take to process Trump’s Cabinet, Durbin responded: “How long will it take to go through the financial papers of some of these billionaires? I can’t tell you.”