- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees began to blanket Capitol Hill this week, holding private meetings with senators as Republican-run committees schedule a slew of confirmation hearings next week, hoping to trample Democrats’ opposition.

With just over two weeks before the inauguration, the Trump transition team and Senate Republicans tried to boost momentum in a confirmation process that Democrats vow to drag out to the bitter end.

Several nominees targeted by Democrats for delaying tactics or defeat were making the rounds Tuesday on Capitol Hill, including Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chief executive who has come under fire for his close business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and lack of government experience.

“You don’t become CEO of ExxonMobil without being talented. This guy is talented,” Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after meeting for more than an hour with Mr. Tillerson.

Despite Mr. Tillerson’s impressive resume, Mr. Cardin wasn’t ready to support confirmation.

Pressed by reporters, Mr. Cardin said he would not participate in stalling maneuvers threatened by his party leaders. But he said the process must run its course — however long that takes — before he can make up his mind about Mr. Tillerson’s suitability to serve as America’s top diplomat.

“I’m not concerned that I need more time. I’m not going to make up my mind until the confirmation process goes its route,” he said. “That’s my responsibility as a senator.”

A flurry of confirmation hearings is scheduled Wednesday for Mr. Trump’s nominees for attorney general, CIA director, secretary of homeland security and secretary of education.

That same day, Mr. Trump tentatively scheduled his first press conference since the Nov. 8 election.

The Senate budget schedule also is shaping up for a vote-a-rama at about the same time on Obamacare and other major spending issues.

The confluence of events — hearings, press conferences and crucial votes that will compete for attention — likely was designed to drown out or at least dampen Democrats’ attacks on the nominees, nearly all of whom have met fierce opposition from the left.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, encountered tough questions about allegations he made racists remarks in the past and is racially insensitive when he met with Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 1986, when Mr. Sessions was a U.S. attorney for Alabama, the same charges about racism derailed his nomination to the federal bench.

Mr. Durbin stopped short of calling Mr. Sessions a racist after the hourlong meeting.

“I’m never going to call anybody that,” he told reporters, but later said Mr. Sessions has more questions to answer about racial issues.

“Certainly there are elements in his background with race questions, and he said to me several times point-blank that this was not an issue as far as he was concerned. He believed everyone deserved fair treatment,” Mr. Durbin said. “I have more questions to ask. I spent an hour. He’ll get plenty of questions on this issue and get to explain his position more before the full committee.”

He said that he gave Mr. Sessions the book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” by Carol Anderson, which catalogs white Americans’ efforts to block black progress since the Civil War.

“I like giving people books,” Mr. Durbin said.

He also said that he was dissatisfied with Mr. Sessions’ refusal to commit to providing Justice Department resources to help combat Chicago’s record-high murder rate and that Mr. Sessions didn’t pledge to “broaden” his anti-illegal immigration views if confirmed as America’s top cop.

“He kept saying, ‘You’ll make the laws and I’ll have to follow them,’” said Mr. Durbin.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Mr. Sessions serves as a member, will hold hearings on his nomination Tuesday and Wednesday.

Confirmation hearings are scheduled Wednesday for Mike Pompeo, the Kansas Republican tapped to run the CIA; retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, the nominee for secretary of homeland security; and school choice activist and GOP megadonor Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education.

“The priorities between now and Jan. 20 are hearings on Cabinet members,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. “We hope the minority will treat President-elect Trump’s Cabinet selections in the same way that we treated President Obama. We confirmed a number on Inauguration Day itself.”

Seven nominees were confirmed on Inauguration Day 2009, when Democrats ran the Senate and Republicans were in the minority. Five other Obama nominees were confirmed by the end of his first week in office.

Mr. McConnell has noted that 13 of the nominees for Mr. Obama’s first Cabinet were approved on a voice vote, a reflection of the lack of resistance from the opposition party.

As well as forging ahead with hearings, Mr. McConnell pledged to pass before Inauguration Day a waiver for retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. Gen. Mattis needs a waiver for a law requiring at least seven years of separation from the military to run the Pentagon. He retired three years ago.

Other nominees meeting with senators Tuesday include Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general with a history of suing the agency, and Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate who once said he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy.

At least 16 of Mr. Trump’s nominees are meeting with senators this week.

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