A marathon of Senate confirmation hearings starting this week will give Democrats the chance to put Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees on trial even though they have little chance of actually blocking any of them.
Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is in talks with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the full scope of the hearings -- demanding, among other things, full paperwork in advance and at least two days of hearings on eight of the most troublesome nominees for Democrats.
A ninth candidate -- billionaire Wilbur Ross, picked to be secretary of Commerce -- will also face intense scrutiny about potential conflicts of interest but isn’t on Schumer’s list.
All of Trump’s picks are expected to win confirmation, barring unexpected revelations or major gaffes. Democrats can’t block nominees on their own, but Schumer said they still have procedural leverage.
"They can delay the process, they can’t stop it," said John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican.
The Senate committees’ scheduling of hearings for nominees who haven’t completed an ethics review required by federal law is a "great concern," Walter Shaub, head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in a letter released Saturday.
"It has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings," Shaub wrote.
Back in 2009, McConnell sent a letter to Democratic leader Harry Reid insisting on standards for nominations, including a review from the OGE prior to hearings.
One of Democrats’ top goals is to highlight splits between the nominees and Trump’s populist message and campaign rhetoric. Here are the eight picks that Schumer’s office cited as the most troublesome for Democrats, along with Ross:
Rex Tillerson , Secretary of State
Tillerson, who stepped down as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. upon his nomination, comes from outside the foreign policy establishment but has the backing of some of its biggest names, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who first floated his name to Trump in November.
Democrats will focus on his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether Tillerson can put U.S. interests first after a 40-year career focused on boosting Exxon’s shareholder value. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to impose new sanctions on Russia for its election-related computer hacking that U.S. intelligence agencies said was ordered by Putin. Tillerson has spoken out against sanctions.
Democrats also plan to question him for hints that he would seek to overturn the Paris climate agreement to limit carbon emissions. Tillerson has spoken favorably of the accord and has acknowledged that emissions will have a “warming impact,” though he has said poverty is a bigger immediate problem. They will also look for possible conflicts in his financial disclosures: Tillerson reported assets of up to $400 million and said he’ll receive a cash payout of $180 million from Exxon.
Steven Mnuchin , Secretary of Treasury
The former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner profited from the 2007-2008 housing market crash when he and a group of investors bought a failed mortgage lender later renamed OneWest Bank. It was accused of unfair practices when Mnuchin was chief executive, such as backdating mortgage documents to speed foreclosures, manipulating the results of home auctions and avoiding business in minority neighborhoods. Democrats labeled him the "foreclosure king" in a website they created to seek examples of OneWest’s aggressive practices.
A political advocacy group called Allied Progress is running television ads targeting Republican senators in Arizona and Nevada, whose constituents had high foreclosure rates after the subprime mortgage crisis. The ad calls on Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, who sits on the Finance Committee in charge of vetting Mnuchin, to vote against his confirmation. Both face re-election in 2018.
Wilbur Ross , Secretary of Commerce
Ross would be one of the most seasoned former business leaders on Trump’s economic team. As a private-equity investor, he restructured companies across a range of industries including steel, banking and textiles. Bloomberg values his fortune at $2.9 billion. But Ross’s private-equity background opens him to the same line of attack Mitt Romney faced when he ran for president in 2012 -- that he was a corporate raider who flipped companies for profit while firing employees. The Center For American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says his massive business holdings represent a major conflict of interest.
Ross is accused in a lawsuit of wrongfully seizing $3.6 million belonging to a former assistant vice president at WL Ross & Co. Joseph Mullin, in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 30 in New York, claims his former boss pocketed private-equity fund profits and interest that rightfully belonged to him. In May, David Storper, a founding member of the firm, sued claiming Ross wrongfully withheld more than $800,000 from him.
Tom Price , Secretary of Health and Human Services
Price, the House Budget Committee chairman until his nomination, will face questions from Democrats on his trades in health-care stocks while handling legislation that could affect the shares. Watchdog group Public Citizen says he made 630 trades in about 40 companies starting in 2012 while he led the Budget Committee and the Ways and Means Committee’s health panel.
Price is a leading opponent of Obamacare and will be questioned about his plan to repeal and replace it. His proposal in May 2015 focused on providing tax credits to buy insurance, expanding health savings accounts and revising medical malpractice laws. Price is also an abortion opponent and will likely be asked about his votes to cut federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
Mick Mulvaney , Office of Management and Budget
Mulvaney, chosen to shepherd Trump’s budget proposals through the legislative process, was elected to the House from South Carolina as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010. He’s a founding member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which pushed to shut down the government in 2015 rather than continue funding Planned Parenthood, helping prompt former House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation.
Critics say Mulvaney’s opposition to raising the debt limit without accompanying spending cuts risks the nation defaulting on some of its debts and rattling markets. Mulvaney also voted against an emergency relief bill following Hurricane Sandy by insisting that the $50.7 billion be offset by other spending cuts, earning the ire of members of both parties.
Andy Puzder , Secretary of Labor
Puzder, chief executive of the company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains, opposes the Obama administration rule that would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, and its proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Democrats are expected to cast findings of wage violations at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, and the disparity in pay for Puzder and his employees, as emblematic of a Trump presidency that will favor wealthy elites despite his populist message.
Some Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations are shifting to touch-screen kiosks, requiring fewer employees behind the counter, a move Puzder said was prompted by what he called ill-advised government policies and taxes.
In a July opinion article, Puzder said legal immigration is an asset to the U.S. and that it would be "unworkable" to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants. But he said Trump’s proposal to build a border wall was reasonable because the public demands action.
Scott Pruitt , Environmental Protection Agency Administrator
Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general since 2010, is a staunch ally of the oil industry and chief foe of the Obama administration’s climate agenda. He joined 26 other attorneys general in suing the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, which he called an affront to states’ rights. Pruitt also helped get a court order blocking an EPA rule that expands the scope of the Clean Water Act, and he’s been critical of U.S. biofuel mandates, describing current policy as "unworkable."
Democrats are expected to scrutinize Pruitt’s ties to the oil and gas industry. In 2014, the New York Times reported that energy lobbyists had drafted letters for Pruitt to send to the EPA and other agencies challenging environmental rules that could affect the industry.
As state attorney general, he created a state “federalism unit” tasked with fighting “unwarranted regulation and overreach by the federal government,” according to his website.
Jeff Sessions, Attorney General
Sessions and Schumer are biking buddies in the Senate gym, and it would be exceedingly rare for a sitting senator not to ultimately get confirmed, despite Sessions’ being rejected for a judgeship in the 1980s over racial comments.
In addition to having to address his race-related comments from decades ago, the four-term senator will face questions on his opposition to legal status for undocumented immigrants, especially those brought here as children and granted work permits by President Barack Obama. He can expect to be grilled on the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of which was struck down by the Supreme Court as outdated; Congress hasn’t updated that section. He also has been targeted by some marijuana advocates who worry he will enforce the federal prohibition in states that have legalized the drug.
Betsy DeVos , Secretary of Education
A billionaire and Republican donor, DeVos has spent more than two decades promoting expanded charter schools and taxpayer-funded school vouchers. In her home state of Michigan, she helped shepherd a charter-school sector that has been criticized as lacking quality and appropriate oversight.
She is expected to face questions about $5.3 million in unpaid fines and penalties imposed by Ohio officials over campaign-finance violations by her All Children Matter Political Action Committee in 2008. Democratic senators including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tom Udall of New Mexico have demanded she pay the fine. Her confirmation is opposed by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.