WASHINGTON ― Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) pushed forward two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks Wednesday morning, advancing their nominations despite a Democratic boycott.
The rules require at least one member of the minority party to be present for the committee to vote on a nominee. But Hatch suspended the rules, allowing him to go around that requirement.
Senate Republicans advanced Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Steve Mnuchin, the pick for treasury secretary, out of committee favorably, on a 14-0 vote. Price and Mnuchin are now cleared to receive a full vote on the Senate floor.
Democrats are opposed to moving forward on the two nominees because they believe the two men misled the public and held back vital information about their backgrounds. The decision to boycott committee votes spread Wednesday morning, when Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee also skipped the vote on Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The basic proposition of breaking the rules so that you can, in effect, look the other way in the face of strong evidence ― serious ethical problems for two nominees ― is especially troubling,” Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters Wednesday morning.
Democratic lawmakers first skipped votes on Price and Mnuchin on Tuesday, forcing a delay in the proceedings. Hatch, who said Democrats were “acting like idiots,” then reconvened Wednesday morning to move forward.
“At every turn, my colleagues’ arguments change but their answer is always the same: Delay,” Hatch said during the brief hearing. “Yesterday, my colleagues took the unprecedented step of boycotting a finance committee vote on nominations. Long story short, we took some unprecedented actions today due to the unprecedented obstruction on the part of our colleagues.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, seemed to think, however, that Democrats had them over a barrel Tuesday.
“To constitute a quorum in the finance committee, we have to have one Democrat,” he told reporters. “I don’t think there’s a way we can discharge somebody out of the committee unless we have a quorum.”
But on Tuesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who helped organize the boycott with Wyden, predicted that Hatch would likely move forward without Democrats. He said the rules Hatch suspended are more a formality and there’s no punishment for breaking them. But it was still important for Democrats to send a message, Brown said.
“The message is simply: Disclose to the committee what you’ve done. Tell the truth. Don’t lie to the committee. And then let’s have the debate,” he said.
When Price was questioned in the Senate Finance Committee about his purchase of discounted stock in an Australian biotechnology firm, he said the offer to purchase discounted shares was “available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.” Company documents and a report by The Wall Street Journal showed that, contrary to Price’s statement, only a limited number of U.S. investors in the company were invited to buy the stock at the lower price.
Democrats have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Price violated insider trading laws and ethics rules.
“I asked Congressman Price directly if he got an exclusive discount on stock in an Australian biomedical firm, and he said no,” Wyden said Tuesday. “From the committee’s investigation to company documents to the company officials’ own words, the evidence tells a different story. It looks more and more like Congressman Price got special access to a special deal.”
And The Columbus Dispatch reported recently that Mnuchin, who was previously the chief executive of OneWest Bank, “flatly denied in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee that OneWest used ‘robo-signing’ on mortgage documents. But records show the bank utilized the questionable practice in Ohio.”
Mnuchin has also acknowledged that he did not initially give the committee all the necessary paperwork regarding foreign investments in a series of entities he helped manage, according to CNN. Additionally, he reportedly acknowledged in a private interview with committee staff that all his answers had not been “true, accurate and complete.”
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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