Sparring repeatedly in Senate hearings with high profile choices of President-Elect Donald Trump, Democrats on Wednesday threatened to delay action on some of his Cabinet choices, as they tried to highlight what they argue are questionable ethics issues of the new administration.
“This is a swamp cabinet full of bankers and billionaires,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) declared, accusing the GOP of trying to rush ill-suited Trump nominees through to confirmation.
Of the four confirmation hearings held on Wednesday in the Senate, Democrats spent the most energy going after Mr. Trump’s choice to lead the EPA, and his selection for health secretary.
In the EPA hearing, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt spent a full day in the hot seat, as his critics accused him of repeatedly favoring the oil and gas industry over environmental concerns in his home state.
“The fear is the nomination of Mr. Pruitt is a nomination to protect the fossil fuel industry and not the environment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
“Why fight so hard on the side of the oil industry, rather than fighting on the side of the health of the people of Oklahoma?” asked Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
Pruitt also faced demands to recuse himself when dealing with the lawsuits against the EPA that he brought as a state Attorney General.
“You brought the case with these other Attorneys General,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who noted that Pruitt would be both the person bringing the suit and the defendant if he is confirmed to the EPA job.
“I’m just telling you, it’s going to end up being a huge conflict of interest,” Markey told Pruitt.
At the end of the day though, Pruitt was still standing, and seemed headed towards approval by the full Senate in coming weeks.
While Pruitt was buffeted by Democrats, so too was Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), Mr. Trump’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, as critics focused on Price’s stock trades.
Democrats seized on a story from CNN which raised questions about stock purchases made by Price; he countered that his broker was totally in charge of those decisions.
“I didn’t know any of those trades were being made,” Price said. “All of those trades were being made without my knowledge.”
But Price acknowledged that he had instructed his broker to buy one particular stock, which had been recommended by fellow Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY).
“That was a decision I made, yes,” Price said under questioning by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), though the Georgia Republican steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.
Democrats also grabbed on to news about another Trump pick, as Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), the nominee to head the White House Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged that he had not paid $15,000 in payroll taxes for household help between 2000 and 2004.
That admission set off flashing red lights for Democrats, who had Cabinet nominees scuttled for the same reason in both the Obama and Clinton Administrations.
“Sen. Tom Daschle did the same thing, and Republicans insisted that disqualified him from becoming HHS Secretary,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Schumer told reporters.
Despite all the furor on ethics from Democrats, it wasn’t immediately apparent if any of their efforts to derail a Trump nominee would bear fruit in the Senate.
Schumer did threaten to delay overall GOP efforts to confirm various cabinet choices, but Republicans have enough votes to succeed, mainly because of a change in the Senate rules that Democrats made a few years ago, which took away the need to get 60 votes to end debate on non-Supreme Court nominations.
The first chance to confirm any of Mr. Trump’s nominees will come on Friday afternoon, following his Inaugural Address; the word is that up to three nominees may get approved right away.
Eight years ago, the Senate gave approval to seven of President Obama’s Cabinet picks on his first day in office.