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
Add to Briefcase
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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
What We're Following See More »
Sen. Graham Supporting Sessions
3 hours ago

"Sen. Lindsay Graham said he is '100 percent behind' embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and said there would be 'holy hell to pay' if President Donald Trump fires him. Graham also said that if the president went after special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who’s directing the investigation into possible contacts between Trump’s circle and Russia, that could be the 'beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong.'"

Sanders New WH Press Secretary
4 hours ago

"With little pomp or circumstance, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped up to the briefing room podium and got straight to business Friday, reading announcements about "Made in America Week" and a new executive order on defense. Minutes later, newly minted communications director Anthony Scaramucci announced she was formally taking over as White House press secretary. In the aftermath of a chaotic communications staff shakeup at the White House last week, there was little attention paid to a new milestone as Sanders assumed the role."

No Instructions to Pentagon, No Change in Transgender Policy
5 hours ago

"The highest ranking military officer in the country said that the military’s transgender policy won’t actively change until President Trump sends specific directions to the Pentagon. 'There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,' Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford wrote in a letter."

FLOTUS First Trip Solo
5 hours ago
Two of Trump’s Top Advisors Feuding
6 hours ago

"A long-simmering feud between two of President Trump’s top advisers reached a boiling point Thursday, as White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci publicly insinuated that chief of staff Reince Priebus is a leaker."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.