The first cascade of confirmation hearings to staff Donald Trump's new administration starts today, as Republicans fend off accusations they're trying to "jam through" the vetting before required screening.
At least eight hearings are scheduled this week for the president-elect's cabinet picks to face tough Senate panels known as "murder boards," a term that originated in the U.S. military. Four are slated for Wednesday alone, the same day as a vote on a Republican budget measure that would repeal key tenets of the Affordable Care Act.
It's also the same day Trump has scheduled his first press conference in about 170 days. Democrats denounced the packed hearings lineup as a calculated push to bury potentially bad press in a news avalanche before Trump takes the oath of office.
The timetable angered Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, who admonished Republican senators for trying to send the confirmations through in an "unprecedented" rush, ignoring concerns raised by the Office of Government Ethics about incomplete ethics and background checks.
"Senate Republicans should heed the advice of this independent office and stop trying to jam through unvetted nominees," Schumer wrote in a letter.
The schedule (subject to change) this week includes:
- Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Attorney General
- John F. Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security
- Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State
- Mike Pompeo, CIA director
- Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary
- Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary
- James Mattis, Defence Secretary
- Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Expect 'temper tantrums'
Tuesday's hearings will open with testimony from Sessions, an Alabama senator liked by his peers across political aisles. But Sessions is burdened by allegations of racist comments raised 31 years ago, when he was deemed unfit for a federal judgeship.
Testimonies that led to the rejection of his nomination allege that Sessions described a white civil-rights attorney as a traitor to his race for defending a black client, joked about supporting the KKK, used the N-word, and called a black assistant U.S. Attorney "boy" on multiple occasions.
Sessions said those hearings distorted views of his character, and were inaccurate.
Hogan Gidley, an adviser to former Republican governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, expects "leniency" for Sessions from Senate colleagues, as "one of their own."
"But I do think there will be plenty of attempts to paint him wrongly as some type of racist," says Gidley, who supported Trump in the election.
The South Carolina-based conservative strategist believes the ultimate play is to discredit Trump. "They'll use this stage of televised confirmation hearings to throw temper tantrums and embarrass the nominees and, by extension, embarrass the person who nominated them."
Tuesday will also include testimony from Kelly, the retired marine general vying for the Homeland Security post. He will likely be asked to defend his opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay as well as the detention centre's reputation for its treatment of detainees. Kelly can expect to be questioned on his approach to combating terrorism and ISIS.
Democrats demand delay
Meanwhile, Democrats are demanding a delay in the proceedings, reasoning that the usual ethics and background disclosures have yet to be obtained for all nominees before the hearings.
They could try to stall hearings by extending the meetings, calling for additional review time to scrutinize nominees' financial records and pushing a final vote back by a week, says Jim Manley, who advised former Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid. (Wednesday's planned confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has been postponed until next week, for instance, as Democrats sought more time to review financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.)
The tactics will likely only delay the inevitable. Trump's picks will likely be confirmed.
"There's been an idea on Capitol Hill that presidents, at the end of the day, deserve to have their cabinet nominees in place, absent some serious allegation," Manley says.
Bad blood may still linger following U.S. President Barack Obama's election win in 2008, when Senate Republicans didn't extend that same courtesy to Obama for executive and judicial branch nominees.
In a tongue-in-cheek tweet Monday, Schumer referenced a 2009 letter from the Republican leadership appealing to the Democrats to provide the standard background checks for Obama's nominees.
Schumer, requesting the same treatment now from the Republicans, appended that original letter, addressing it instead to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell from the Office of the Democratic leader.
"Senate Republicans abused the process" by refusing those picks, Manley says. Fed up by the obstruction, Democrats voted in 2011 to weaken the filibuster rules so that only a simple majority of 51 — rather than the 60 needed in a supermajority — was sufficient for confirmations.
Now that the Republicans have a 52-seat majority in the Senate, that procedural change could shift advantage to the other side of the aisle.
Democrats and skeptical Republicans are expected to confront Trump's picks on issues like their apparent coziness with Russian officials (for Tillerson); unsettled payment of millions in overdue election fines (for DeVos); plans to replace Obamacare (for Tom Price); and profiting from the 2008 housing collapse (for Steve Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs executive tapped for Treasury Secretary).
Hearings a chance to 'get clarity'
Besides scrutinizing the nominees' backgrounds, Democrats will use the occasion to focus on the judgment of the incoming commander-in-chief, grilling his would-be staff on whether they agree with Trump's most radical ideas.
"This is not only going to be about holding their feet to the fire and discussing the agencies they've been nominated for," says Manley. "They're going to want to poke around and see where, and whether, they differ from Donald Trump himself."
The president-elect has been "all over the map" with his political views, Manley says. The hearings should give Senate Democrats a chance "to get clarity on where this administration intends to go on hot-button issues, including immigration and health care reform."
Trump's transition team has reportedly set up mock hearings in a federal building in Washington to prep his nominees.
Savvy nominees will avoid making "thoughtless statements or unauthorized policy statements," says Gary Nordlinger, a politics professor at George Washington University.
And if someone feels tempted to bloviate on a controversial topic? Robert Reich, the former labour secretary in the Bill Clinton administration, offers wisdom in a blog: Just resist.
"Say instead: 'I look forward to working with you on that, Senator.'"