Both the House and Senate are out for a weeklong recess in honor of President’s Day. Congress is scheduled to return on Monday, Feb. 27 for a six-week legislative session before the Easter recess in April. While the agenda remains fluid, Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross will likely be first up in the confirmation queue when the Senate returns next week. Additionally, although President Trump will follow recent tradition and not deliver a formal State of the Union in his first year in office, he is set to speak to a joint session of Congress next Tuesday on his legislative priorities.
The Week in Review
The Senate worked to continue filling President Trump’s Cabinet last week, with successful confirmations including David Shulkin for Veterans’ Affairs Secretary, Linda McMahon for Small Business Administrator, Mick Mulvaney for Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Scott Pruitt for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Mulvaney and Pruitt faced sharp opposition from Democrats, who have been keeping the Senate in session overnight in order to protest particularly contentious nominees, but neither nominee was ever in real danger of being blocked. The Senate also moved to approve a few House-passed resolutions rolling back Obama-era rules, including a measure (H.J. Res. 40) that blocks a rule mandating the Social Security Administration provide information on those receiving disability benefits due to mental health issues to the national background check system for firearm purchases.
With a weeklong President’s Day recess looming, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be hoping to move one more confirmation, Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, before senators head back to their home states. As they have for other controversial nominees, Democrats kept the chamber in session overnight, arguing that the Oklahoma Attorney General’s lawsuits against the EPA disqualified him from leading the nation’s primary environmental watchdog. While Republican Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is expected to vote against Pruitt, Democrats are set to see defections from their ranks in Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who are both up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump overwhelmingly won in last year’s election. After Pruitt, the next nominee that Leader McConnell has teed up for floor consideration is billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross to lead the Department of Commerce.
The White House suffered its first casualty in the Cabinet confirmation process yesterday after Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder withdrew his name for consideration due to mounting opposition within the Republican caucus. As many as 11 Republican senators were reportedly on the fence about voting for the fast food executive, and given united Democratic opposition, it is unlikely that he would have survived a vote on the Senate floor. Puzder was the only Cabinet-level official who had yet to appear in front of a Senate panel and was always considered a troublesome pick given past controversies in his personal and professional life. President Trump will now need to submit a new name for the Labor post, with former National Labor Relations Board members Peter Kirsanow and R. Alexander Acosta reportedly leading the early list of candidates.
Earlier this week, in a very excellent piece that ran in Axios (totally worth adding to the morning subscription list if you haven’t already), Jim VandeHei laid out a very rationalized reason why he thinks the current state of American politics will only get worse. While he may be correct, it seems the real question is one of scope – how long will it be worse before it gets better. For years, there appeared to be a silent majority that understood, and more importantly, appreciated the American tradition of compromise. The success of the tea party in 2010, and whatever liberal reflection is currently rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of the 2016 election, are willing to forgo incremental changes achieved via compromise in favor of intransigence. Whether the anger currently being demonstrated on the left will lead to the same results is yet to be determined. At the end of the day, Democrats, even liberal stalwarts like Senator Edward Kennedy, were always willing to take half a loaf in order to get the deal made. For years, they had some Republicans willing to dance. It seems like the music has stopped… for now. But even minor changes in the incentives to reach across the aisle could alter that process, and with the consummate deal maker sitting in the White House those changes could come sooner than conventional wisdom might think.
Congress will be going through more of the same today as the Senate moves on to consider the nomination of Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Mulvaney’s nomination is considered to be contentious and will likely come down to only a few votes if Democrats stay united in opposition. So far, only Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has said he will oppose the nominee over his past positions on defense spending and American involvement in Afghanistan. One more defection for Republicans would necessitate a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, who has already been called on to confirm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A cloture vote for Mulvaney’s confirmation is scheduled for today, with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt reportedly next in the confirmation queue.
Both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Veterans’ Affairs Secretary David Shulkin were confirmed by the Senate last night as the upper chamber begins to pick up the pace in installing President Trump’s Cabinet. Today, senators will vote on the nomination of wrestling and entertainment mogul Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) files cloture on six other nominations, specifically: (1) Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to become Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director; (2) Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to lead the Department of the Interior; (3) Former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) to head the Energy Department; (4) Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency; (5) former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and (6) Wilbur Ross to be Commerce Secretary. None of those selections are expected to be in any danger of being blocked, but expect significant Democratic opposition to Mulvaney, Pruitt, and Ross. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told he reporters that he expects Mulvaney and Pruitt will be confirmed before next week’s President’s Day recess, but that timeline was rebuked by prominent Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
The week will bring a sense of déjà vu to Washington as the House lines up another series of resolutions taking aim at Obama-era agency regulations and the Senate plods through the confirmation process for more of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Under the powers of the Congressional Review Act, the House plans votes to walk back five separate rules related to: (1) drug testing of certain unemployment compensation applicants (H.J. Res. 42); (2) a predator hunting rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (H.J. Res. 69); (3) federal funding of family planning services (H.J. Res. 43); (4) auto-enrolling employees in state-run retirement plans (H.J. Res. 66); and (5) allowing large cities and counties to set up auto-enrollment retirement savings programs (H.J. Res. 67). The family planning resolution is a part of Republicans’ continued effort to drain federal funding from the health organization and abortion provider Planned Parenthood, with the measure specifically undoing an Obama Administration rule that prohibited states from denying Planned Parenthood funding for non-abortion medical services.
The Week in Review
The Senate spent most of the last week working to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees to top administration posts, spending a total of 90 hours of debate to confirm three key cabinet officials: Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as attorney general, and Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) as head of the Health and Human Services Department. During the debate on Sessions, Senate Republicans stopped Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) from participating, invoking the rarely used Rule 19, after they said she “impugned” the character of her fellow-Senator. Despite the made-for-TV theatrics, Sessions was ultimately confirmed on a party-line vote, and Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) appointed his state's attorney general, Luther Strange, to replace Sessions in the Senate.
After a late-night vote early this morning to confirm Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Senate has wrapped up voting for the week and will spend the day debating the nomination of Treasury Secretary-designee Steven Mnuchin. Instead of the threatened Saturday session, the vote to confirm Mnuchin has been set for Monday, setting up a fourth straight week of partisan debate over President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations.