U.S. Senate confirms Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state

The Republican-led Senate on Wednesday confirmed U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee Rex Tillerson, with a vote of 56-43, to be secretary of state.

Committee makes rule change to approve 2 other Trump picks in absence of Democrats

Senators voted 56-43 to approve Rex Tillerson's nomination to be the chief U.S. diplomat. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republicans jammed two of U.S. President Donald Trump's top cabinet picks through the Senate finance committee with no Democrats in the room Wednesday after suspending a rule that would have otherwise barred them from taking the vote. 

The tactic seemed a warning shot that they might deploy brute political muscle in the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court vacancy.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, with a vote of 56-43.

Most Senate Democrats opposed Tillerson's nomination, angering Republicans who considered the former Exxon Mobil CEO to be highly qualified for the post.

Senator Ben Cardin, the foreign relations committee's top Democrat, says he feared Tillerson would be a "yes man" and would not be able to prevent Trump from pursuing a misguided foreign policy that leads the country "on a march of folly."

But Republicans had the numbers to push Tillerson's nomination through. They also received help from several Democrats who crossed party lines.

Nasty showdown

With a near-toxic vapour of divisiveness between the two parties across Capitol Hill, nasty showdowns broke out elsewhere, as well.

One Senate panel signed off on Trump's choice of Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general only after senators exchanged heated words, and another committee postponed a vote on the would-be chief of the Environmental Protection Agency after Democrats refused to show up.

Busting through a Democratic boycott of the finance panel, all 14 Republicans took advantage of Democrats' absence to temporarily disable a committee rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for votes.

Tom Price is expected to lead Republican efforts to dismantle former president Barack Obama's health law. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

They then used two 14-0 roll calls to approve financier Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Georgia Republican congressman Tom Price to be health secretary, ignoring Democrats' demands that the two nominees provide more information about their financial backgrounds.

All the nominations will need full Senate approval.

Underscoring Congress' foul mood, finance panel chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah, said Democrats should be "ashamed" for staying away from his committee's meeting.

"I don't feel a bit sorry for them," he told reporters, adding later, "I don't care what they want at this point."

But the prospects that Republican donor Betsy DeVos would win approval as education secretary were jarred when two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, said they opposed her. Both challenged her support for public education, and their defections meant Vice-President Mike Pence might need to break a tie in a Senate that Republicans control 52-48.

Lawmakers are bracing for a battle over the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, who Trump announced Tuesday is his pick to fill a vacant Supreme Court. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Supreme court nomination

Congress' day was dominated by confrontation, even as lawmakers braced for an even more ferocious battle over Trump's nomination of conservative federal judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

Democrats were already furious over Republicans' refusal last year to even consider President Barack Obama's pick for the slot, Judge Merrick Garland. Trump fuelled the fire by urging Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to "go nuclear" — shorthand for a unilateral change in the chamber's rules so Democrats can't block Gorsuch with a filibuster.

Without a rules change, Republicans will need at least eight Democrats to reach the 60 votes necessary to halt filibusters or endless procedural delays.

Democrats question Price, Mnuchin

Democrats boycotted Wednesday's abruptly called finance committee meeting, as they'd done for a session a day earlier. They say Price and Mnuchin have lied about their financial backgrounds and must answer more questions.

"It's deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the finance committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees' serious ethical problems," said the panel's top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Democrats say Price had special access to low-priced shares in an Australian biomed firm, even though he testified the offer was available to all investors. They say Mnuchin ran a bank that processed home foreclosures with a process critics say invites fraud.

The two men have denied wrongdoing and have solid Republican backing.

The Senate judiciary committee used a party-line 11-9 vote to sign off on Sessions for attorney general. That came after Democratic Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz had misrepresented remarks he'd made about Sessions weeks ago.

Cruz wasn't present as Franken spoke. Republican Senator John Cornyn, also of Texas, interrupted Franken twice, calling it "untoward and inappropriate" to disparage the absent Cruz.

Franken said Cruz "personally went after me, he personally impugned my integrity." Angrily pointing at Cornyn, he asked, "You didn't object then, did you?"

Cornyn said he wasn't sure he was there when Cruz spoke.

Climate-change denier

At the Senate environment and public works committee, Democrats boycotted a planned vote on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The vote was postponed.

Pruitt has questioned the scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to global warming and joined lawsuits against the agency's emission curbs.

Another panel postponed a vote on Trump's pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party congressman Mick Mulvaney, of South Carolina, as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee's FBI file.