WASHINGTON ― Senate Democrats deployed a dramatic eleventh-hour maneuver to deny committee votes to two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks Tuesday, arguing that those nominees had lied to them.
Senators on the Finance Committee were set to vote on Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and Steve Mnuchin to lead the Treasury Department. But on Tuesday morning, they simply didn’t show up for the votes, denying Republicans the quorum they needed to move forward toward confirmation. At least one Democrat needs to be present for the vote to happen.
Explaining the boycott, Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the two nominees “misled the public and held back important information about their backgrounds.”
“Until questions are answered, Democrats believe the committee should not move forward with either nomination. ... This is about getting answers to questions, plain and simple. Ethics laws are not optional, and nominees do not have a right to treat disclosure like a shell game,” he added.
With their plans to quickly confirm Trump’s nominees upended, Senate Republicans were outraged, suggesting that they’d even consider changing committee rules to eliminate the need for a minority member to be present.
“This is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen in my 40 years in the U.S. Senate,” Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in the hearing Tuesday. “There isn’t a fellow on the other side I do not care for. Normally they’re very honorable and decent people. That’s why it’s so shocking to me that they’re not here when we’ve given them every opportunity to be here. ... That’s not only ridiculous, it’s offensive.”
“I think they ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots,” he added. “Stop holding news conferences and come here and express yourself here and vote one way or the other.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused the Democrats of sowing chaos and hypocritically wasting time, since at this point in President Barack Obama’s first term, the Senate had approved about 20 nominees. He also pledged that the stalling would be fruitless.
“It is time to get over the fact that they lost the election,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill. “None of this is going to lead to a different outcome. The Cabinet secretaries are going to be approved.”
Plans to boycott the hearings were first discussed on Monday evening, senior Democratic aides told The Huffington Post, with committee members expressing frustration over the answers, or lack thereof, they’d received from Mnuchin and Price.
Wyden and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) spoke late into the night about how to organize committee Democrats into action.
Lawmakers felt the two nominees had misled them at various points in the confirmation process and were looking for a leverage point to get additional explanations. On Tuesday morning, the aides said, committee Democrats met in Wyden’s office and agreed to go forward with the plan shortly before the hearing was set to begin.
When Price was questioned about his purchase of discounted stock in an Australian biotechnology firm in the Senate Finance Committee, 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 lowered 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.”
Brown has said he wants Mnuchin to provide data on how many OneWest foreclosures there were in each state.
“Mnuchin profited off of kicking people out of their homes and then gave false testimony about his bank’s abusive practices,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday. “He cannot be trusted to make decisions about policies as personal to working Ohioans as their taxes and retirement.”
Senate Democrats have been under increased pressure from their base in recent days to be more aggressive in standing up to Trump. So far, every single Democrat has voted for at least one of the president’s picks. But going forward, there are more calls for them to oppose every single person Trump tries to get confirmed.
In 2013, Republicans boycotted the committee vote on Gina McCarthy to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, was a member of the committee and part of that boycott.
Brown said his effort wasn’t part of some broader political tactic to stop Trump but was centered on his problems with these particular nominees. He conceded that Democrats, being in the minority, can’t really hold up the nominees for long. Even though committee rules require at least one Democrat to be there to vote on a nominee, there’s no official punishment for breaking those rules.
“[Hatch] can go ahead and vote,” Brown said. “But do you want to break the committee rules and force out two people who lied to the committee about something as serious as robo-signings and buying and selling health care stocks as a health care congressman?”
Jennifer Bendery and Michael McAuliff contributed reporting. This post has been updated with McConnell’s comments and more details on the boycott.
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