- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2017

President Trump’s picks to lead the Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services departments — some of his most controversial nominations — survived their first test votes on the Senate floor Thursday, putting each of them on track to win full confirmation over the next couple of weeks.

Democrats have boycotted committees and erected other procedural hurdles, but Senate Republicans tested the power of their own slim majority to advance the nominations.

That includes a frenetic schedule and early-morning votes, all meant to try to outlast the determined liberal resistance to Mr. Trump’s nominees.

Only two Democrats joined Republicans on Thursday to advance the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. No Democrats voted to advance Steven T. Mnuchin, designated to be Treasury secretary, or Rep. Tom Price, who has been tapped to lead the Health and Human Services Department.

The votes Thursday were just to begin debate on the nominees. Each will still have to clear votes to head off Democratic filibusters and then separate votes to win final confirmation.

Democrats have mounted the most strenuous fight over presidential nominees in modern political history. Two weeks into the administration, only six have been confirmed. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush each exceeded that number by Inauguration Day.

“We are in uncharted waters with this administration. They have not proposed a normal Cabinet. This is not even close to normal,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “I’ve never seen a Cabinet this full of bankers and billionaires, folks with massive conflicts of interest and such little experience or expertise in the areas they will oversee.”

He said Mr. Trump’s “unusual” choices have forced Democrats to take extra time to scrutinize the nominees and that the delay is “well worth it.”

Democrats tried to bottle up the Mnuchin and Price picks in the Finance Committee this week by staging boycotts. Under committee rules, at least one Democrat had to be present for a voting quorum.

Democrats then tried to block a vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee on Scott Pruitt, chosen to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Republican chairmen of the committees countered by moving to suspend the rules, then approved the nominees on unanimous votes — with no Democrats present.

“Elections have consequences, and a new president is entitled to put people in place who will advance his agenda,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the environment committee. “The minority wants political theater. The nation needs a new EPA administrator.”

Environmentalists, who had easy access to the EPA during the Obama administration, fear the loss of influence under Mr. Pruitt, who as attorney general in Oklahoma repeatedly challenged the agency’s regulatory reach in court.

Senate Democrats said they were concerned about Mr. Pruitt’s ideological bent but were boycotting because they didn’t think he provided enough information to make a final decision.

Democrats say they want thousands of emails showing communication between Mr. Pruitt and oil and gas companies, along with answers to detailed questions about his views on climate change.

Mr. Pruitt addressed those issues extensively during his confirmation hearings last month, including defending his close ties to the fossil fuel industry by saying it was his job as Oklahoma attorney general to defend businesses in the state from burdensome federal regulations.

Mr. Pruitt also answered some 1,200 written questions submitted by committee members.

Elsewhere in the Senate, two committees voted to approve Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the nerve center of the White House.

Mr. Mulvaney has cleared the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Budget Committee in party-line votes, but he could face trouble in the floor vote from Republicans who want a massive defense spending increase and see Mr. Mulvaney as an obstacle.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, voted to back the nominee Thursday, but he said he has concerns. At a public hearing last week, Mr. McCain lectured Mr. Mulvaney about defense spending.

Betsy DeVos, nominated to lead the Education Department, is also facing hurdles.

Two Republicans have announced their opposition to her, and Democrats are filibustering her nomination. A showdown vote is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. Friday. If no Democrat supports her and the two Republicans vote against her, Vice President Mike Pence will be called to break the tie.

The White House wasn’t fazed.

“I have 100 percent confidence she will be the next secretary of education,” press secretary Sean Spicer said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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