Trump's backlog of nominees: Republicans want to go 'nuclear,' Dems want tougher vetting

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks with reporters following a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 24, 2018. McConnell urged confirmation for President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

After 15 months in office, President Donald Trump has confirmed fewer executive branch officials than any recent president.

The hold-ups are prompting Senate Republicans to consider a rule change to fast-track the confirmation process. Democrats, pointing to a rash of ethics scandals around Trump cabinet officials and nominees, are defending their slow pace and questioning the administration's ability to properly vet its candidates.

As of Tuesday, 139 of Trump's nominees were waiting a confirmation vote in the Senate, including two members of the president's cabinet and at least two dozen ambassadors, according to data from the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post.

On average, the Senate has taken 85 days to approve each Trump nominee, 30 percent longer than it took to confirm President Barack Obama's picks and almost twice as long as the average George W. Bush nominee.

The White House lashed out at the minority party in the Senate accusing them of obstructionism and "slow-walking" the confirmation process.

"Unfortunately, Washington has become so polarized that Democrats have decided to obstruct even normal confirmations," White House legislative director Marc Short told Sinclair's Michelle Macaluso.

At the current rate, the White House estimates it would take more than nine years for the president to have all of his nominees confirmed. "We'd be out of our presidency, if he even was reelected, before we even got all our nominees confirmed," Short said, arguing the Democrats have become "a complete obstruction tool."

In recent days, Senate Democrats, many of whom voted for Mike Pompeo to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, attempted to derail his nomination as Secretary of State. A last-minute show of bipartisanship in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee assured Pompeo a positive referral. The Senate is expected to confirm Pompeo later this week by a narrow margin.

Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., defended his party's role in holding up Trump's picks for high office, arguing the Senate's advise and consent role is more important than ever.

"This Trump administration has done the worst job of vetting their nominees of any administration I can remember," Schumer charged, citing bipartisan concerns about Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson and Trump's pick to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel.

Jackson's confirmation hearing was postponed indefinitely after unconfirmed rumors surfaced about the nominee's professional conduct. By Tuesday afternoon, Trump publicly offered Jackson an opportunity to withdraw.

Gina Haspel, who would be the first woman to hold the top intelligence post, is under fire ahead of her May 9 confirmation hearing for her alleged role in the CIA's so-called torture program.

Given concerns about pending nominations, Schumer argued the Senate should not be a "rubber stamp" for the president. "It's our job to vet and we will not be rushed through, particularly when this administration has such a poor record of looking at the qualifications and the problems that each nominee brings."

In recent months, the Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stepped down after spending hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars on private air travel. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was fired amid an ethics scandal and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks for the high cost of his travel and security detail and accepting gifts from a lobbyist.

The White House defended its process of vetting candidates. Marc Short said the process is "very thorough," explaining the White House does its own internal vetting, followed by an FBI background check and review by the Office of Government Ethics.


According to a number of Senate Republicans, the turnover at the top of the Trump administration is no excuse for the Democrats' record number of votes to postpone confirmation votes on Trump nominees.

"Our Democratic colleagues have been slow-walking and obstructing nominees since the president was sworn in," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas stated.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Cory Gardner of Colorado accused Democrats of "procedural sabotage."

Since Trump took office, the Democratic minority voted 85 times to prolong debate on a Trump nominee. In more than one instance, the nominee was then approved with a supermajority. For months, Republicans have been considering changing the rules of the Senate to prevent the minority party from delaying the confirmation process.

On Wednesday, Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee will hold a controversial vote on a resolution to bring back the so-called "nuclear option" imposed by former Democratic Leader Harry Reid in 2013 to push through Obama's judicial picks.

Under the new rule, the Senate will be limited to eight hours of debate on non-cabinet-level nominees and district court judges, rather than spending 30 hours on each of the more than 600 Senate-confirmed positions.

"It's an unacceptable thing to let that continue to happen," Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said. He expects Democrats will oppose the rule change, but said the majority will advance it nonetheless.

Sen. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, introduced the resolution and told Circa he wants it to be permanent. "This has never happened, but now it's the new precedent," he said.

Democrats overwhelmingly supported the rule change in 2013 when they were the majority party and Republicans were holding up Obama's nominees, but are now opposed to the idea of limiting the minority party's power. That is part of the reason Lankford wants the rule made permanent.

"If we don't fix this now, absolutely Republicans will reciprocate on this in the future and this just continues to get worse," Lankford warned.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., disagreed with Lankford's proposal. "I never think it's a good idea to limit debate," he said. "There should be a full screening of their background. That's the way the process has always worked."

Supporters of limiting the time for debate said that by the time nominees get to the floor, senators have had sufficient time to vet them individually and in committee.

"When we do our work, we do it as exercising due diligence. We ask hard questions, we ask for additional information," said Sen. Mike Round, R-S.D.

Lankford explained that limiting the number of hours of debate will not impact the Senate's advise and consent role. "There's been all this spin basically, that says the vetting happens on the floor." Gesturing to a nearly empty Senate chamber he continued, "I don't think anyone believes that if they watch the floor."

The White House fully backs Lankford's resolution and called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to keep the Senate in session at night and over the weekends until the administration is fully staffed.

This month, McConnell started to increase pressure on senators, threatening longer workweeks and weekend votes. It is reportedly a dual effort to fill the Trump administration's many vacancies while depriving vulnerable Democrats of time to campaign for reelection in their states.

In the past, McConnell supported the Senate rule change to limit the time for debating nominees. The Senate leader's office was not able to confirm whether McConnell will push a full floor vote on the new rule.

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