GOP suspends Senate rule, muscles Trump picks through panel
WASHINGTON -- In the latest intensification of partisan hostilities, Republicans rammed President Donald Trump's picks to be Treasury and health secretaries through a Senate committee on Wednesday without any Democrats present after unilaterally suspending panel rules that would have otherwise prevented the vote.
By a pair of 14-0 roll calls, the Senate Finance Committee approved Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be Health and Human Services secretary and banker Steve Mnuchin to become Treasury secretary. Both nominations must be confirmed by the full Senate.
The show of muscle came hours before the Senate planned to vote on confirming Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, to become secretary of state.
Democrats boycotted the abruptly called Finance Committee meeting, as they'd done for a session on Tuesday, demanding more time to question the two men about their past financial practices.
Before approving the two nominees, the committee's Republicans voted 14-0 to temporarily suspend a rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for any votes. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the Senate parliamentarian had approved the extraordinary tactic and blamed it on Democrats, saying their boycott was "one of the most pathetic things I've ever seen" and "a nefarious breach of protocol."
The show of brute political muscle by Republicans came as the two parties have battled virtually nonstop since Trump entered the White House 12 days ago over his refugee ban, his firing of the acting attorney general and GOP plans to erase former President Barack Obama's health care law.
With Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, the show of strength at the Finance panel seemed to signal that the party will do all it can to block Democratic attempts to frustrate them.
In a letter, Finance panel Democrats sent to Hatch early Wednesday, they wrote that they were not attending meetings because "both nominees have yet to answer important questions that impact the American people." They also cited "significant concerns that both Mr. Mnuchin and Congressman Price gave inaccurate and misleading testimony and responses to questions to the Committee."
Democrats said there were unresolved questions about the financial backgrounds of Price and Mnuchin.
In confirmed by the full Senate, Price would lead Republican efforts to erase Obama's health law. Democrats cited a newspaper report that officials of an Australian biomed company said Price received a special offer to buy their stock at a reduced cost, despite Price's congressional testimony that the offer was available to all investors.
Democrats also said a bank run by Mnuchin used a process for handling home foreclosures that critics have associated with fraud.
Both men and congressional Republicans said they'd done nothing wrong.
Several other votes were planned Wednesday to get Trump nominees approved by committees, clearing them for confirmation in the full Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee intended to vote on Trump's nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general. Democrats scuttled a planned vote Tuesday in the wake of Trump's decision to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Several Democrats said they had no confidence Sessions would be able to stand up to Trump.
The vote on Tillerson comes as tension builds among congressional Republicans and Democrats over Trump's executive order on immigrants and refugees.
But Democrats lack the numbers in the Senate to block Tillerson from becoming the nation's chief diplomat. Republicans hold a four-seat advantage and during a procedural vote Monday on the nomination, Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia cast their ballots for Tillerson. They're unlikely to change their minds.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also supported Tillerson. The nomination needs only a simple majority to be confirmed.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was sure whether Tillerson would steer Trump toward a coherent foreign policy or whether he might be a "yes man, enabling the risky, chaotic whims of a demagogue president who is leading us on a march of folly."
With liberal groups pressing them to fight Trump, Democrats used delaying tactics on Trump nominees on Tuesday. It's one of their limited weapons as the congressional minority to hamper the GOP.
A vote also was planned in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his current position, Pruitt has frequently sued the agency he hopes to lead, including a multistate lawsuit opposing the Obama administration's plan to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Like Trump, Pruitt has cast doubt on the extensive body of scientific evidence showing that the planet is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame. Pressed by Democrats in his Senate confirmation hearing in January, however, Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump's earlier claims that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to harm the economic competitiveness of the United States.
"I do not believe climate change is a hoax," Pruitt said.
Another panel postponed a vote on Trump's pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee's FBI file.
Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker contributed to this report.
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