Senate panel approves Steven Mnuchin, Tom Price under emergency action

Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) speaks with reporters following a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee to vote on the nominations of cabinet nominees Tom Price and Steve Mnuchin, on Capitol Hill, on Feb 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) speaks with reporters following a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee to vote on the nominations of cabinet nominees Tom Price and Steve Mnuchin, on Capitol Hill, on Feb 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG/NYTIMES) - Facing a boycott from Democrats, a Senate panel took what it called emergency steps on Wednesday (Feb 1) to advance the nominations of Mr Steven Mnuchin to run the Treasury, Mr Tom Price to head Health and Human Services, and Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Their nominations now face a floor vote of the Senate, which the ruling Republicans control.

The Senate Finance Committee moved to report both Mnuchin and Price to the Senate floor on 14-0 votes, with only Republicans participating, after voting to suspend the panel's rules.

The unusual steps came one day after Democrats forced a delay on scheduled votes by boycotting the committee's meeting.

 

Chairman Orrin Hatch said on Tuesday that he was furious at the Democrats, and vowed to push the nominations forward.

He said on Wednesday that the emergency steps were the proper course of action.

"For the record, I'll note that the Senate Parliamentarian Office has confirmed that this course of action is consistent with both the committee and Senate rules," he said.

 

Democrats could attempt to challenge the committee's actions when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell tries to bring them up for a floor vote, but they may not be able to block it.

Mr Hatch told reporters afterwards that he did not know when a floor vote would be scheduled for either nominee.

The Democrats said they had been misled by Mr Mnuchin and Mr Price, and wanted an opportunity to investigate unanswered questions about Mr Price's investments and Mr Mnuchin's role in a bank that had been criticised for aggressive foreclosure practices.

Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown said Mr Mnuchin had "out-and-out lied to our committee" about the robotic signing of foreclosure documents by the bank, OneWest, when he was its chief executive.

Democrats also said Mr Price had misled the committee about his investment in a small Australian biotechnology company that could have benefited from legislation he promoted. Mr Price bought discounted shares in the company through a private placement after learning about the company from another congressman.

Under finance committee rules, the panel needs a quorum, including at least one member of the minority party, to conduct business.

Democrats have no immediate prospect of stopping Mr Trump's nominees, but by dragging out the confirmation process, they said, they could slow down his ability to carry out policies that many Democrats adamantly oppose.

As Mr Trump's dramatic firing on Monday of acting attorney-general Sally Yates threw the capital into tumult, the Democrats also seized on the contentiousness to try to block Senator Jeff Sessions' nomination for the post.

They said he was too close to Mr Trump to be independent. They forced a delay of at least a day for a judiciary committee vote on Mr Sessions.

The US Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday (Feb 1) to confirm Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, sending President Donald Trump's pick to be the chief US law enforcement officer to the full Senate for a final vote.

The Senate panel approved Sessions' nomination on a 11-9 party-line vote, two days after Trump fired Ms Yates for directing Justice Department lawyers not to defend the president's order to temporarily ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the judiciary panel, said Ms Yates had shown "guts" in refusing to defend Mr Trump's executive order on immigration.

But other Trump nominees advanced on Tuesday. By a vote of 93-6, the Senate approved the nomination of Ms Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.

By a vote of 12-11, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions recommended confirmation of Mrs Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. She is a Republican fund-raiser and donor.

Mr Trump's pick for Energy Secretary, former governor Rick Perry of Texas, won backing from the Senate committee on energy and natural resources, which voted 16-7 to recommend his confirmation.

And by a vote of 16-6, that committee approved Republican Representative Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department.