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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