Somewhere in the US Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence rests a series of records. No one will say publicly what’s in them, or even whom they mention. But the senators investigating the connection between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign are dying to get their hands on them.
This week, Senate Democrats tried using one of their few points of leverage to pry those documents loose: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced that he’d be placing a “hold” on Sigal Mandelker, who has been nominated as Trump’s undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence. He would release the hold and allow the nomination to proceed, he said, when the department releases the records.
Senators on the Intelligence Committee haven’t said what kind of information the records in question contain, or whom they are about. They have said publicly that they may reveal the “level of financial ties” between Trump campaign officials and Russian entities, as Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told CNN.
Wyden’s attempt to dislodge those records isn’t likely to work, but to liberal activists, it’s an important escalation.
Because of a 2013 rule change initiated by Democrats, Senate Republicans only need 51 votes to overcome the hold and confirm Mandelker. But Wyden’s decision is nonetheless a sign that Senate Democrats are increasingly willing to use the procedural tools at their disposal to attempt to fight Trump and his party — a development that’s being welcomed by the progressive base.
“So far, Senate Democrats have been cautious about stepping outside the norms of traditional Senate behavior. But the administration’s exploding of every conceivable norm is starting to change that,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org.
“Wyden putting a hold on a Trump nominee until we get more documents on the Russia investigation is exactly the kind of things we want to see.”
Does this tactic mark a turning point for Senate Democrats?
The Senate formally operates through what’s called “unanimous consent,” meaning that any motion to consider a bill can be blocked as long as just one senator objects. Senate Republicans placed these “holds” on more than 100 of President Barack Obama’s nominees, blocking the motion to consider their nomination.
Like filibusters, holds on presidential nominees can only be broken by a successful cloture vote to cut off debate on a given motion. Before 2013, that required 60 votes. But since former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) changed the rules, it now only takes 51 votes for the Senate to confirm executive branch appointments. As the Washington Post’s Paul Kane explained in 2013 when the rule was changed:
Democrats used a rare parliamentary move to change the rules so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has been the standard for nearly four decades. ...
Now, a president whose party holds the majority in the Senate is virtually assured of having his nominees approved, with far less opportunity for political obstruction.
So Wyden’s move is more likely to simply force Senate Republicans to jump through one more procedural hoop to get Mandelker confirmed, rather than kill the nomination outright.
The move may still be significant, if ineffective. So far, Democrats have mostly pulled out the stops when they oppose the specific action being undertaken by the Republican Congress — delivering a 13-hour Senate speech in opposition to Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, for instance. They’ve resisted using all of their leverage in unrelated fights to call on Republicans to meet their other demands. This is a shift in that direction.
Wyden has voiced essentially no objections to Mandelker on the merits of her qualification for the position. Instead, he appears to be taking a small step toward Democrats doing whatever they can to gum up the works of the Senate, and jam the schedule of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, until they win concessions on Trump and Russia. Activists are hoping bigger steps will follow.