The Senate teed up retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis Wednesday for quick confirmation to be the next defense secretary, but President-elect Donald Trump is likely to start his term with far fewer confirmed Cabinet secretaries than any of the last three presidents.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who has vowed to slow down the confirmation process, said Republicans were trying to push the nominees through too quickly, denying Democrats adequate time to question them and failing to provide necessary paperwork.
The New York Democrat also said Mr. Trump’s picks deserve extra scrutiny — if not flat out opposition.
“This is a swamp Cabinet full of bankers and billionaires,” Mr. Schumer told reporters while refusing to say how many nominees could get a vote Friday, when Mr. Trump will be sworn in as president.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, bristled at Mr. Schumer’s claim that nominees didn’t answer enough questions.
“Saying there was not enough time to ask questions is absolute nonsense. Our committee questioned Dr. Price on Wednesday for four hours, longer than any of the six other Health and Human Services cabinet nominees going back to 1993,” the Tennessee Republican said.
He noted that Betsy DeVos, the school-choice crusader that Mr. Trump selected for education secretary, was grilled for three and a half hours, which is about an hour and a half longer than either of the hearings for President Obama’s two education nominees.
“The Democrats are making up excuses because they can’t find better reasons to oppose the nominees,” Mr. Alexander said.
In the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Mattis won overwhelming approval to run the Pentagon, clearing the committee in a 26-1 vote.
Mr. Trump will officially submit the nomination when he’s inaugurated Friday, and Gen. Mattis can now be voted on directly by the entire Senate — though no time has been set.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was in talks with Mr. Schumer about the voting schedule for Friday.
President Obama had seven Cabinet-level nominees confirmed on his first day in 2009 and another nine before the end of his first week. President George W. Bush also had seven nominees confirmed the day he took office in 2001.
President Clinton had three nominees confirmed on his first day in 1993, but he got 13 more approved by the Senate on his second day in the White House.
Mr. Schumer said that what is happening now in the Senate can’t be compared to 2009.
“President Obama’s nominees had all of their paperwork in a timely way and the Republicans were given ample time to question the witnesses, so it’s not analogous at all,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Senate committees had held confirmation hearings for 12 of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet-level nominees. Another two confirmation hearings were scheduled for Thursday. That will bring the total to 14 for nominees potentially ready for a vote, including some of the most controversial nominees such Mrs. DeVos, Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
With unanimous consent of the Senate, a nominee could bypass a committee vote and receive final approval. Senate Democrats’ strong opposition, however, makes unanimous consent unlikely in all but a few cases, such as Gen. Mattis, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly for homeland security secretary and Elaine Chao for transportation secretary.
Meanwhile the nomination of Rep. Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget ran into trouble over his failure to pay more than $15,000 in payroll taxes for a household employee.
Mr. Mulvaney admitted the lapse in response to a questionnaire from the Senate Budget Committee, The New York Times reported.
“I have come to learn during the confirmation review process that I failed to pay FICA and federal and state unemployment taxes on a household employee for the years 2000-2004,” he said.
The congressman said he had subsequently paid more than $15,000 in taxes and is awaiting a state tax bill, plus penalties and interest.
Mr. Schumer said that past standards on such tax issues should apply to Mr. Trump’s nominees.
“When other previous Cabinet nominees failed to pay their fair share in taxes, Senate Republicans forced those nominees to withdraw from consideration,” he said. “If failure to pay taxes was disqualifying for Democratic nominees, then the same should be true for Republican nominees.”
The budget committee has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to consider Mr. Mulvaney’s nomination.
Mr. Trump’s team rallied behind the South Carolina congressman.
“Nobody is more qualified and more prepared to rein in Washington spending and fight for taxpayers than Mick Mulvaney,” the transition team said in a statement to the newspaper. “Congressman Mulvaney raised the issue surrounding the care of his premature triplets immediately upon being tapped for this position, and has taken the appropriate follow-up measures. The administration fully stands behind Representative Mulvaney.”
Mr. Mulvaney, first elected in 2010, has developed a reputation as one of the staunchest of fiscal hawks during his time in Congress.
But such tax issues have derailed the nominations of other top-level nominees in recent administrations. In early 2009, former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination to be Mr. Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services after revealing he had to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes for a gift of a car and private driver.