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What Republicans’ divide-and-conquer strategy looks like from Capitol Hill

A dispatch from a wild two days in Congress.

Sen. Jeff Sessions Testifies At His Senate Confirmation Hearing To Become Country's Attorney General
A heated confrontation over Sen. Sessions’s nomination to Attorney General on Wednesday competed in the headlines with several other major controversies the same day. Some Democrats say that’s by design.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The first day of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing for attorney general turned the third floor of the Russell Senate Building into a spectacle. Beyond the fireworks going on inside the hearing room, a few hundred reporters, sightseers, and protesters milled around the rotunda outside, shouting, laughing, cheering, and arguing.

But by Wednesday, the second day of Sessions’s hearing, the show had largely moved on. The protesters had mostly disappeared; the networks downplayed the story. You couldn’t even watch several hours of the hearing on C-SPAN, which was instead showing the hearings of secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson and transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Capitol Hill played host to a wild and near-constant barrage of big events that all screamed out for scrutiny, including the push to repeal Obamacare and three confirmation hearings. And that’s not even counting the other big drains on the political world’s time and attention — CNN’s bombshell report on Donald Trump and Russia, and Trump’s first press conference in months.

Democrats on the Hill say the crunch is no accident. “The Republicans are intentionally flooding the zone because they don’t want us to be able to keep track of these multiple outrages,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told me in an interview on Wednesday afternoon.

Regardless of the politics, there are also certain undeniable realities: Senators can’t be in two places at once — questioning an important Cabinet nominee and listening to the president-elect’s press conference, for example. Nor can they know the unknowable — like what would be on a nominee’s ethics disclosure form, if it hasn’t yet been filed.

“There’s all these things going on at once, literally happening simultaneously, about which we as senators have direct responsibility over,” Schatz said. “But our ability to metabolize what’s going on is just not equal to the amount of ridiculousness happening.”

Republicans wanted things to move even faster

It could certainly have been worse. As of just last week, Republicans had scheduled six separate hearings for Trump’s Cabinet nominees for Wednesday. Democrats then lobbied to whittle that number down to three.

“We did a lot to space out the hearings,” one Democratic Senate aide said. “In an ideal world, you don’t have any hearings on the same day. But Republicans agreed to move some of them, and they didn’t have to do that — it was in response to public pressure and us using our leverage.”

The less packed schedule mattered, the aide argued. On Wednesday, for example, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker became the first senator ever to testify against a colleague — arguing against Sessions’s confirmation. It did get covered by the networks, which may not have happened if the hearings went as originally planned.

Republican senators, meanwhile, see their colleagues’ complaints as being wildly overblown. To them, the flurry of activity is mostly business as usual — one that Democrats don’t like because they don’t like the nominees.

On Wednesday, I asked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz if the Trump show and the other Cabinet hearings that day risked drowning out the critical issues being discussed at the hearing of the attorney general.

Cruz told me he didn’t think so. “I think the past two days has been a thorough examination of [Sessions’s] record and the job he’ll do as attorney general,” Cruz said. “Any fair or impartial observer watching this will conclude that — whether or not you agree with him on any particular policy issue.”

Similarly, Arizona Sen. John McCain swatted away questions about whether his colleagues had enough time and information to prepare for multiple committee hearings. (Some senators were on more than one committee holding hearings at the same time, and so were literally scheduled to be providing oversight in two places at once.)

"That's why we have staff,” McCain said. “We're ready. I don’t worry about this being a problem."

Democrats say they don’t have enough information on Trump’s nominees

But it’s not just the timing of the hearings that some senators say has constrained the ability to fully vet the incoming Cabinet: It’s that they simply don’t know enough about the nominees and their policies.

As Sessions’s hearing broke for recess Wednesday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar argued that Trump’s Cabinet hadn’t done nearly enough to meet disclosure requirements. As of Tuesday night, 12 Cabinet nominees hadn’t completed their ethics agreements, 13 hadn’t submitted their tax returns, and 14 hadn’t finished their FBI background checks, according to one senior Democratic aide. (That includes Rex Tillerson, whose hearing is already underway.)

“We should have ample information so we can look at someone’s record,” Klobuchar told me. “I don’t think [the Cabinet nominees] should be going forward if they haven’t had their ethics forms submitted. We can’t make these decisions if we don’t have the information.”

The procedure with Trump’s incoming Cabinet is a big change compared with previous administrations, says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

“What’s so unusual is that the paperwork hasn’t been done for many of these nominees,” Binder said. “Ethics agreements are a matter of practice — the Senate wants to know: ‘What do we know about this nominee?’ ‘How will it affect the big issues they’ll confront?’”

But here, too, things could have been worse. As one Democratic aide notes, the hearings — like that of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos — were only moved back after Senate Democrats used Mitch McConnell’s own words from 2009 to call for greater disclosure from Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

“Our whole strategy is built on ensuring that this has not happened,” the aide said.

“These halls will be filled again”

Still, some opponents of Trump’s Cabinet worry that not nearly enough is being thrown at nominees they regard as unfit for office.

"Everyone’s taking their time to put out the embers, but nobody's taking on the big fires," one Senate Democratic aide said.

Outside of the Sessions hearing on Wednesday, NAACP president Cornell Brooks acknowledged that the halls were less full of reporters than they’d been just a day earlier. But he also insisted that it didn’t worry him.

“We don’t live or do our work based on the Twitter and traditional media news cycle,” he said.

Brooks said that once Sessions is sworn in, something will happen — a police shooting; a high-profile business discriminating against a gay person — to refocus public attention on the policies of the incoming attorney general, even if people are distracted right now.

“People won’t lose sight of what’s going on. Sooner or later, all of the issues we talked about here will join the grist for public debate,” he said. “Trust me, these halls will be filled again.”

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