On Tuesday, Senate Democrats on the finance committee boycotted the votes for two of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Progressive groups cheered: The boycott deprived the finance committee a quorum, and temporarily prevented Republicans from sending the Trump nominees to the Senate floor to be confirmed.
But on Wednesday, Republicans deployed a workaround — Republicans on the committee used a "unanimous consent" clause to suspend all of its rules for the meeting, then voted to confirm the nominations for Steven Mnuchin, up for Treasury secretary, and Tom Price, nominated for Health and Human Services secretary.
BREAKING: Senate committee approves Trump Treasury, Health nominees without Dems present after GOP changes panel's rules.— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) February 1, 2017
This move clears the confirmation paths for Mnuchin and Rep. Price. And it suggests that, when faced with obstructionism from Democrats, Republicans won’t be shy about using their majority to change Senate procedure to advance their party’s agenda — a decision that could foreshadow the fight over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
Why Democrats wanted the Cabinet nominees stalled
On Capitol Hill, Democrats have insisted that they weren’t trying to block Trump’s cabinet to score political points. Instead, they’ve argued that they wanted to ask further questions after reporting emerged that both Price and Mnuchin appeared to lie at their prior committee hearings.
"[There] are significant questions, either where the nominee has directly contradicted themselves on the record or there’s a lack of clarity or completeness," Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, told the Columbus Dispatch.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Price seemingly misled the committee about a stock deal he got from an Australian biotech company. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote, Price told members of Congress that discounted shares he had purchased from Australian biotechnology company were “available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.” The Wall Street Journal determined that Price “was one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors” offered that price.
Mnuchin, meanwhile, has been accused of misstating his personal wealth on disclosure documents — the Washington Post says he omitted more than $100 million in personal disclosures. He’s also been accused of lying about whether OneWest, the bank he ran from 2009 to 2015, used a feature called “robo-sign” on foreclosure documents. Robo-signing illegally expedites the foreclosure process by having bank employees “falsely sign hundreds of affidavits per week attesting that they had reviewed and verified,” as the Intercept’s David Dayen has explained. A former OneWest employee has admitted that the bank engaged in robo-signing in 2009, according to the Intercept, and the Columbus Dispatch has discovered dozens of OneWest records that were clearly robo-signed.
Republicans rewrite the rules to advance Trump’s Cabinet picks
Republicans reacted in fury to the Democratic senators’ boycott. Finance Committee Chair Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, told reporters on Tuesday that his Democratic colleagues were "idiots," whose tactics were the most "pathetic" action he'd seen in his many years in the chamber.
“Republicans on this committee showed up to do our jobs. Rather than accept anything less than their desired outcome, our Democrat colleagues chose to cower in the hallway and hold a press conference,” Hatch added in a statement.
In another statement, Hatch claims that Price only appears to have gotten a “sweetheart deal” because there was only a very limited pool of investors interested in the biotech company to begin with. He also pointed to a “government review” that concluded Mnuchin’s OneWest did not engage in robo-signing. (The Intercept counters that these “reviewers were not government officials but third-party consultants, who labored under guidelines chosen by the banks.”)
At a press conference on Tuesday, Hatch tried to persuade his Senate Democratic colleagues to come back to the negotiating table, but on Wednesday he pushed through the rules changes that paved the way for Mnuchin and Price to get a full Senate vote.
This could be a preview of the SCOTUS fight ahead
On Tuesday night, progressive organizations demanded that Senate Democrats filibuster Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Right now, 60 votes are required for the Senate to confirm a Supreme Court nominee — and there are only 53 Republicans in the Senate.
Theoretically, that means Senate Democrats could block Gorsuch if they stood together as a party. But Senate Democrats have been uneasy about pursuing that strategy. According to CNN, Senate Democrats have privately worried that a filibuster may be pointless because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could instead just rewrite the rules on Supreme Court confirmations — and make it so only 51 Senate votes, instead of 60, are required.
Progressive groups think that’s giving up the game too easily. “Not fighting the fight is losing before it even begins,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, in an interview. “And it’s not a sure thing that McConnell will break with his institutionalist principles and vote to strip one of the protections of the minority political party in the Senate.”
That may be true. But McConnell may treat the SCOTUS fight the way Hatch treated the fight over Mnuchin and Price — in which case it wouldn’t matter how many Senate Democrats decide to filibuster.