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Carson adviser: Democrats ‘crippling’ Trump administration with Cabinet delays

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., announced Tuesday that he has taken initial steps toward forcing votes on several of President Trump’s remaining Cabinet nominees, renewing his complaints about “unprecedented obstruction” from Democrats.

After the confirmations of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin Monday night, nine Cabinet-level officials are still awaiting Senate votes. Republicans say that amounts to the slowest confirmation process for a new president’s slate of nominees since George Washington.

“What’s the point other than needless delay?” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Our friends are slow-walking votes, not changing outcomes.”

A few of Trump’s nominees have faced unusually close votes, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who required Vice President Mike Pence to cast a historic tiebreaking vote, but none have been defeated.

“I took the necessary procedural steps last night to allow us to confirm the rest of the nominees on the calendar,” McConnell said.

Democrats argue that Trump’s nominees present an unprecedented level of potential conflicts of interest and other problems that require thorough and deliberate examination.

“If there was ever a group of Cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it’s this one,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor last month. “The President-elect’s Cabinet is a Swamp Cabinet full of billionaires and bankers that have conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as far as the eye can see.”

According to McConnell’s office, the next six votes will be for Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), Wilbur Ross (Department of Commerce), Ryan Zinke (Department of the Interior), Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), and Rick Perry (Department of Energy). Cloture motions were presented for all six Monday, but dates for votes have not been set and depend in part on how Democrats respond. Senators are out of town next week for the President's Day holiday.

Andrew Puzder (Department of Labor), Sonny Perdue (Department of Agriculture), and Robert Lighthizer (trade representative) have not yet faced committee hearings. Puzder is the only one whose nomination appears to be in any danger so far, with CNN reporting that four Republicans are now considering voting against him.

Despite concerns about his lack of housing or government-related experience, Dr. Carson cleared his committee hearing with relatively little drama in January and was voted out of committee unanimously. Even vocal critics of Trump like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Sherrod Brown voted in his favor.

Carson adviser Armstrong Williams said the former neurosurgeon is perplexed by the slow movement on his confirmation vote before the full Senate since then.

“He is ready to go to work,” Williams said.

Williams accused Democrats of delaying confirmations as revenge for Republicans blocking President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for the last 11 months of his presidency.

“What they’re doing is punishing Mr. Trump, handicapping him, crippling him in this process of serving the people,” he said.

He rejected Democrats’ claims that Trump nominees require added scrutiny, saying the senators’ actions are more about politics than principle. He argued that they should allow the president to have the team he wants so he can succeed or fail on his own merits.

“We’re Americans first,” Williams said. “No matter whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats or Independents, we should want it to work for the American people.”

However, Democratic strategist Craig Varoga said many Americans do not want this Cabinet to get to work because they disagree with the policies Trump intends to pursue.

“This administration should not be surprised by the response to its nominees, based on Republican intransigence in the previous Congress and the current campaign-like vitriol out of the administration,” he said.

“That and various other issues, such as the Flynn scandal, are grinding things to a halt, which is terrible for folks who support Trump’s campaign promises and great for those who are concerned about the direction in which he wants to take the country.”

Glenn Altschuler, Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, said the confirmation process has been unusually contentious, but he described that dynamic as “clearly a product of the intensification of the polarization between the parties that has emerged in the last decade or two.”

He cited several possible motives for the Democrats’ obstruction, including vengeance for Republican behavior against the Obama administration.

“My sense is that the Democrats are delaying in part out of frustration with their inability to get some Republicans to cross the aisle,” he said, “they’re acting out of anger at the Republicans with memories of the blocking of Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to be Supreme Court justice, and they’re also hoping against hope that with delay something will turn up that will affect the confirmation process.”

While Republicans have pointed fingers squarely at Democrats, the minority party ultimately has little power in the confirmation process. After a rule change made by Democrats in 2013, Cabinet nominees can no longer be denied an up-or-down vote with a filibuster.

Once cloture is filed with majority support, debate on a nominee is limited to 30 hours. For recent controversial votes, Democrats have held the Senate floor through the night as the clock ticked down, but they have not yet actually defeated any of Trump’s picks.

“I think the Democrats had hoped that there would be one nominee where a sufficient number of Republicans would peel off to send President Trump a message that they would not simply fall in line with every nominee and on every issue,” Altschuler said.

Democrats have attempted to boycott committee hearings for a few nominees, a tactic Republicans used a couple of times against Obama. However, Republicans changed committee rules to approve nominees without Democrats present.

Experts lay some of the blame for the sluggish progress on a White House that vetted nominees slowly and was late in filing paperwork on ethics and financial disclosures.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the vetting has been, at best, hasty,” Altschuler said.

Williams suggested the nominees facing relatively little opposition should have been handled first.

“If there are Democrats who want to exercise their right and their constituency pushback not to vote for them, that’s the American way,” Williams said, “but at least give him an opportunity to have an up-or-down vote in front of the whole Senate.”

In Carson’s case, once he was voted out of committee in January, Democrats say the onus was on Republicans to schedule the floor vote. Until the cloture filing Monday, it appears they had not taken steps to do so.

In interviews on Capitol Hill last week, several Senate Democrats defended their strategy.

“The American people want to know that we are standing up and having a conversation about American values and whether the individuals who have been nominated are of fit character for the positions,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., adding that several of Trump’s picks had “serious flaws.”

“You have the fact that many of the people being nominated want to tear down the programs they’re nominated to run,” he said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, suggested Republicans who approve Cabinet officials despite issues that would have sunk a nominee in the past are simply scared to defy this president.

“They’re afraid that if they vote no, they’re going to be threatened by him, that he’ll call them names and he’ll out them and he’ll tweet about him,” he said. “They’ve seen other presidential candidates be humiliated by him personally.”

However, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, compared Democrats to “pouting children.”

“Because they lost the election and they hate Trump, they’ve been holding up the Senate and holding up Trump’s nominees with no good reason,” he said. “They know they’re going to ultimately pass, but they’re slowing everything down to a snail’s pace.”

Republicans are understandably frustrated, but progressive activists have commended Democrats for standing up against Trump’s most controversial nominees, even those they had no chance of stopping.

When Democrats delayed Mnuchin’s committee vote last month, Demand Progress praised them for “finding their spines.”

“Senate Democrats should be applauded for their bold move to stand up for ordinary Americans – like the ones Steve Mnuchin walked all over while running the ‘foreclosure machine’ OneWest Bank – by refusing unanimous consent on Mnuchin’s committee vote,” Campaign Director Kurt Walters said in a statement.

After Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., cast the only Democratic vote for Mnuchin’s confirmation Monday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee blasted him for breaking ranks.

“We will ensure that Joe Manchin hears from his West Virginia constituents who disapprove of his voting with Wall Street against working families,” the group said in a statement.

Raucous town halls and massive protests in recent weeks demonstrate that Democratic votes are looking for a fight. For lawmakers, it is not always about winning, Altschuler observed, but instead about establishing a pattern of questionable and unethical behavior by Trump and those around him.

“It also contributes to a narrative that they will be using throughout the Trump administration that Donald Trump has not drained the swamp,” he said, referring to one of the president’s popular campaign promises.

According to Altschuler, gerrymandering, redistricting, and other factors have left lawmakers with very little incentive to seek bipartisanship and many reasons to resist it. After eight years of using every procedural means available to delay and derail President Obama’s agenda, Republicans now control the White House and Congress.

“I think the Democrats can assume that they will not be punished for obstruction either,” he said.

Williams acknowledged that obstruction may be popular with the progressive base, but he still considers the delay of approval for Cabinet nominees to be harmful to democracy.

“Leadership is not about giving into a mob mentality, a chaotic mentality that is very disruptive to delivering services and delivering promises to ‘we the people,’” he said. “There’s a time and place for protest.”

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