Outlook: The Senate’s Time Crunch

A host of confirmation hearings and a budget vote-a-rama pack the calendar, while Obama and Trump have major appearances planned off the Hill.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson arrives for a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., the committee that will conduct Tillerson's confirmation hearing, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Jan. 8, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

A chaot­ic con­firm­a­tion slate threatens to turn the Sen­ate in­to a zoo this week, as mem­bers rush back and forth between over­lap­ping hear­ings on some of Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump’s most im­port­ant Cab­in­et nom­in­ees.

Re­pub­lic­ans lead­ers seek­ing to give Trump a full Cab­in­et by his in­aug­ur­a­tion stacked six con­firm­a­tion hear­ings in­to a single day Wed­nes­day. Des­pite Demo­crats’ pleas for more vet­ting time, the cham­ber will then move straight in­to a vote-a-rama on amend­ments on the budget res­ol­u­tion that same even­ing—a pro­cess likely to last late in­to the night.

By cram­ming a half-dozen hear­ings in­to a single day, Re­pub­lic­ans hope to sweep some of the most im­port­ant nom­in­ees through quickly, with little at­ten­tion on any single can­did­ate. Aid­ing that cause, the hear­ings will be held on the same day that Trump will be in New York hold­ing his first press con­fer­ence in six months—and one day after Pres­id­ent Obama gives his farewell ad­dress in Chica­go.

Hear­ings for the nom­in­ees for CIA dir­ect­or and Home­land Se­cur­ity, Trans­port­a­tion, and Edu­ca­tion sec­ret­ar­ies will all likely be­gin and end on Wed­nes­day, though com­mit­tee chairs could call for more time if they chose. Hear­ings are ex­pec­ted to last two days apiece for sec­ret­ary of State nom­in­ee Rex Tiller­son, be­gin­ning Wed­nes­day, and at­tor­ney gen­er­al nom­in­ee Jeff Ses­sions, be­gin­ning Tues­day.

Re­pub­lic­ans don’t need Demo­crat­ic help to con­firm the nom­in­ees, and the quickened pace dampens Demo­crats’ hopes of us­ing the hear­ings to high­light con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of can­did­ates’ back­grounds. It also means sen­at­ors who serve on mul­tiple com­mit­tees will have to skip some hear­ings, or jump between them throughout the day.

At the end of last week, Demo­crat­ic lead­er Chuck Schu­mer pled with Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to al­low more time, cit­ing the ob­vi­ous schedul­ing con­flicts. He also noted that the Sen­ate had only re­ceived fin­an­cial dis­clos­ures for four of the six can­did­ates—in­form­a­tion needed for identi­fy­ing po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­terest in a group of un­usu­ally wealthy nom­in­ees.

Tech­nic­ally, Demo­crats could delay some of those hear­ings by us­ing Sen­ate rules to ob­ject to com­mit­tees meet­ing while the cham­ber is in ses­sion. Sen­ate GOP Whip John Cornyn ac­know­ledged Fri­day that “there are some con­ver­sa­tions go­ing on” between the two parties about the sched­ule, leav­ing open the pos­sib­il­ity that this week’s hear­ing lo­g­jam could be lightened.

Demo­crats have also be­gun rolling out budget amend­ments de­signed to force Re­pub­lic­ans’ hands on votes re­lated to Trump’s cam­paign prom­ises. In par­tic­u­lar, an amend­ment in­tro­duced by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont seeks to pre­vent the Sen­ate from mak­ing any cuts to So­cial Se­cur­ity, Medi­care, and Medi­caid—as Trump said dur­ing the cam­paign. How the GOP nav­ig­ates those amend­ments could provide polit­ic­al fod­der against the party in the 2018 midterms.

The House, mean­while, could be­gin con­sid­er­ing the budget res­ol­u­tion later this week, de­pend­ing on how quickly the Sen­ate fin­ishes it. House Re­pub­lic­ans will also con­tin­ue their reg­u­lat­ory re­form agenda, with the cham­ber tak­ing up bills tar­get­ing fin­an­cial and com­mod­ity rules.

Here’s what else is on tap:

DE­FENSE AND FOR­EIGN POLICY

One of the more con­ten­tious con­firm­a­tion hear­ings on the Hill this week will be for Tiller­son, who is set to face the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. The former Ex­xon­Mobil CEO may have avoided one con­tro­versy by reach­ing a deal to cut fin­an­cial ties with the en­ergy gi­ant last week, but sen­at­ors are pre­par­ing to ex­tens­ively grill him on his ties to Rus­sia and re­fus­al to re­lease his tax re­turns.

Giv­en the cur­rent party split, Tiller­son can only af­ford three Re­pub­lic­an de­fec­tions if Demo­crats are united in op­pos­i­tion to him. Sev­er­al hawk­ish Re­pub­lic­ans, most not­ably John Mc­Cain, Lind­sey Gra­ham, and Marco Ru­bio, all re­it­er­ated in re­cent days that they have ser­i­ous con­cerns about Tiller­son, but haven’t de­cided how they will vote. Ru­bio has the op­por­tun­ity to grill Tiller­son in per­son this week. After Tiller­son made the rounds at the Cap­it­ol last week, two Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Ben Cardin and Chris­toph­er Coons, both said that while they had en­cour­aging con­ver­sa­tions with Tiller­son, ques­tions re­main.

At a Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or break­fast Fri­day, For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Cork­er pre­dicted Tiller­son will be “over­whelm­ingly sup­por­ted,” adding that his views on Rus­sia are “not by any means out of the main­stream.”

Re­tired Mar­ine Corps Gen. James Mat­tis, Trump’s De­fense sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee, should have a smooth­er con­firm­a­tion pro­cess, which be­gins Thursday in front of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. But there is one po­ten­tial hang-up: He needs 60 sen­at­ors to vote for a waiver that would al­low him to serve in the post less than sev­en years after leav­ing the mil­it­ary. Kirsten Gil­librand has been lead­ing the charge against grant­ing Mat­tis the waiver, but many of her fel­low Demo­crats don’t ap­pear will­ing to fol­low suit. Mc­Cain, the Armed Ser­vices chair­man, said he doesn’t think this will be a prob­lem for Mat­tis.

Mean­while, Mike Pom­peo, the nom­in­ee to lead the CIA, is sched­uled to ap­pear be­fore the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. While the Kan­sas con­gress­man is ex­pec­ted to re­ceive bi­par­tis­an sup­port, he will likely face quer­ies over Trump’s re­cent ques­tion­ing on the in­tel­li­gence com­munity, as well as the pres­id­ent-elect’s re­por­ted plans to re­or­gan­ize some of their agen­cies.

EN­ERGY AND EN­VIR­ON­MENT

The House con­tin­ues its push to weigh in on reg­u­la­tions, with a vote sched­uled on a bill from Rep. Bob Good­latte that would force agen­cies to choose the low­est-cost rule­mak­ing al­tern­at­ive, pre­vent rules from tak­ing ef­fect un­til leg­al chal­lenges are com­pleted, and re­peal the Chev­ron doc­trine. The vote comes after the House passed two oth­er bills to com­bat ex­ec­ut­ive reg­u­la­tions last week, but the pack­age faces a tough­er climb in the Sen­ate.

None of the ma­jor en­vir­on­ment­al Cab­in­et nom­in­ees have Sen­ate hear­ings sched­uled, but EPA pick Scott Pruitt, In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee Ry­an Zinke, and En­ergy De­part­ment nom­in­ee Rick Perry will con­tin­ue to hold meet­ings on the Hill. Demo­crats and en­vir­on­ment­al groups have raised con­cerns about how Pruitt and Perry would handle cli­mate-change is­sues in their posts.

HEALTH

To help kick off the week, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Sylvia Bur­well will dis­cuss con­sequences of an Af­ford­able Care Act re­peal at the Na­tion­al Press Club on Monday.

This will come as Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors move for­ward with the budget res­ol­u­tion that provides for the re­peal of Obama­care, end­ing with the Sen­ate vote-a-rama.

While Demo­crats may not have the abil­ity to stop the GOP re­peal train, some have sub­mit­ted amend­ments that aim to pre­serve pro­vi­sions clos­ing the Medi­care pre­scrip­tion-drug “donut hole,” pre­vent tax cuts for cer­tain high-in­come cit­izens if a re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act res­ults in the loss of health care cov­er­age, and pre­vent the privat­iz­a­tion of Medi­care.

An amend­ment named “Don’t Make Amer­ica Sick Again” pro­posed by Sen. Tim Kaine was already shot down. The amend­ment would have blocked le­gis­la­tion that re­duces the amount of people en­rolled in health in­sur­ance, in­creases premi­ums, or re­duces the scope of be­ne­fits.

To­wards the end of the week, Rep. Brad Wen­strup will be hold­ing a brief­ing on the dangers for U.S. health care posed by phys­i­cian-as­sisted sui­cide.

TRANS­PORT­A­TION

Elaine Chao, Trump’s nom­in­ee to head the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment, will face the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. Al­though Chao—the wife of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and a former Cab­in­et of­fi­cial in her own right—is ex­pec­ted to clear the Sen­ate eas­ily, the hear­ing is likely to of­fer a ven­ue for Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans to ask about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to in­vest in in­fra­struc­ture.

WHITE HOUSE

Pres­id­ent Obama’s last full week in of­fice has him pretty much out of pub­lic view with one big ex­cep­tion. On Tues­day, he re­turns to his ho­met­own of Chica­go to de­liv­er his farewell ad­dress, a tra­di­tion set by George Wash­ing­ton, who pub­lished his in 1796, an­noun­cing he would not run for a third term. For the rest of the week, Obama’s pub­lic sched­ule has him at the White House. On Monday, Jan. 16, he will mark his fi­nal Mar­tin Luth­er King Day by par­ti­cip­at­ing in a ser­vice pro­ject, as he has for the past sev­en years.

Adam Wollner, Erin Durkin, Jason Plautz and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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