Democrats intensified their opposition to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries on Tuesday by further delaying the confirmation of several of his Cabinet nominees amid strong Republican objections.
Hours after Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend his executive order banning certain immigrants and refugees, Democrats lashed out during hearings held to approve Trump’s choices to lead the departments of Justice and Treasury – or didn’t show up at all.
At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats lashed out at Trump for firing Yates and said that they would not support his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., because they do not believe he would ever demonstrate similar independence.
Just down the hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the Senate Finance Committee convened to vote on Steven Mnuchin’s nomination to serve as treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to be secretary of health and human services- but Democrats boycotted the meeting, forcing Republicans to reschedule both quotes.
At a hearing on Trump’s choice for education secretary, Democrats once again tried stalling a vote to advance Betsy DeVos to the full Senate amid fresh revelations that she may have plagiarized some of her answers to written questions from senators.
The theatrics drew more attention to Trump’s recent decisions and the growing bipartisan concern with his decision to implement a travel ban with virtually no consultation of top government officials or senior lawmakers. But ultimately, Democrats alone lack the votes needed to block any of Trump’s nominees from eventually taking office.
At the Judiciary hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, said Yates’ defiance of Trump “took guts. That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to have the courage to say no.”
“I have no confidence that Sen. Sessions will do that,” she added. “Instead, he has been the fiercest, most dedicated and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda.”
Republican defended Sessions, but said little about Trump’s executive order.
At the Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sat alone at the dais with just two other Republican senators. Having just come from the Judiciary hearing, Hatch told his colleagues, “Jeff Sessions isn’t treated much better than these fellas are.”
“Some of this is just because they don’t like the president,” Hatch said. Later, he said of Democrats: “I think they ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots.”
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., one of the other Republicans in the room, agreed: “I think this is unconscionable.”
“We did not inflict this kind of obstructionism on President Obama,” added Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the only other senator in the room. He added that the Democrats were committing “a completely unprecedented level of obstruction. This is not what the American people expect of the United States Senate.”
In the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Democrats were once again trying to slow consideration of DeVos. Amid concerns about her lack of background in education policy and her plans not to divest her own personal holdings in firms that do business with the Education Department, Democrats discovered late Monday that written responses from DeVos to questions from senators appeared to use several sentences and phrases from other sources without attribution – including from a top Obama administration civil rights official.
Amid growing public concern with Trump’s travel ban, Democrats have faced louder calls from within their party to boldly stand up to Trump. But further delays could have far-reaching consequences, as became evident on Monday night when the Justice Department was plunged into turmoil.
Trump fired Yates, an Obama-era appointee, for refusing to defend his travel ban in federal court. In her place Trump installed Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is expected to hold the job until Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is confirmed as attorney general.
Sessions is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate in the coming days, but Democrats have been using a series of rarely used stalling tactics to prolong the inevitable. In its statement on Yates’s firing, the White House added that Sessions is “being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said late Monday that Yates’ dismissal “underscores how important it is to have an Attorney General who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law.”
“Many people have doubts about whether Jeff Sessions can be that person, and the full Senate and the American people should at the very least know exactly how independent he plans to be before voting on him,” Schumer added.
Other delays are possible too – and some have already happened.
On Monday, Democrats blocked the Senate Finance Committee from meeting to refer Steven Mnuchin to the full Senate to serve as the next treasury secretary. The panel is now scheduled to meet Tuesday to consider Mnuchin and the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to serve as the next secretary of health and human services.
The freshly combative mood of Democrats has also begun to shape the debate over previously uncontroversial nominees. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who faces a 2018 re-election bid in a swing state, sent a letter to transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao on Monday with seven questions about enforcement of the ban, given that she would have oversight of the nation’s major international ports of entry.
Aides said that Chao’s failure to answer those questions might be more reason for Democrats to vote against her when she faces an up-or-down vote later Tuesday. A party-line vote on Chao might cause even more bad feelings in the chamber, given that she’s the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
A senior Democratic aide said the caucus could keep up the use of unusual stalling tactics “until the executive order is rescinded.” The aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about ongoing strategy sessions, dismissed suggestions that fresh pressure from progressive groups had compelled Democrats to intensify their campaign against Trump and his nominees.
“Members are incensed about this,” the aide said.
So are run-of-the-mill Democrats – and not just at Trump and Republicans. One question for Democratic lawmakers is whether they can satisfy the demands of the liberal base of their party to do more to block Trump’s presidency.
On Monday night, a rally organized by senior Democrats on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court looked like an awkward mass marriage, marred by bad communication.
A crowd of at least 1,000 protesters was waiting on the narrow path between the court and its first set of stairs. The crowd, bent around a path that had been left open for Democrats, launched into chants of “Hands too small, can’t build a wall” and “Build a fence around Mike Pence.” Some shouted, “Walk the walk!” – a command to the Democrats themselves.
While the crowd waited for Democratic lawmakers to arrive, two protesters took over the lectern to give short speeches; microphones meant for the senators stayed off. When the Democrats arrived, several held small electric candles, but found microphones that couldn’t carry their voices to the crowd. After a round of “This Land is Our Land,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke, with much of the crowd unable to hear.
“What the president did is not constitutional,” said Pelosi.
“You’re not doing anything if you don’t stop Sessions!” yelled one protester.
Democratic senators said Monday that they want to hear directly from Sessions about his involvement in crafting Trump’s executive order before the Senate confirms him to his new role.
“We’re certainly going to raise the issue” whenever the Judiciary Committee meets, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a senior member of the panel.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., urged colleagues to “take a pause in confirmation votes to try to get this executive order right. You know this is going to get Americans killed if we don’t take our time to understand what this order is and what its consequences are.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said that Trump’s order “does complicate things, and I don’t know whether a delay would suffice, but I think it becomes even more important to get a really close look on these issues after this irresponsible behavior.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, signaled that she’s ready to move on despite the public outcry.
“We’ve delayed it once and I think we’re ready for the vote” on Sessions, she said, adding later that Trump’s order “doesn’t impact Sessions.”
But close aides to Sessions helped craft Trump’s order, most notably Stephen Miller, Trump’s new top domestic policy adviser and speechwriter who has worked alongside the Alabama senator for several years to defeat bipartisan immigration reform legislation and to warn against permitting the resettlement of refugees from overseas.
While senators toil over the qualifications and positions of Trump’s nominees, he has started meeting with world leaders, reshaping immigration and trade policy and urged congressional Republicans to begin overhauling the Affordable Care Act – with most of the seats around the White House Cabinet Room still empty.
Schumer was unapologetic on Monday, telling the Spanish-language network Univision that “Senate Democrats, we’re the accountability.
“We’re going to hold Donald Trump accountable. I think in our recent actions on immigration, on the Cabinet. We’re not letting him rush the Cabinet through.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ed O’Keefe, Karoun Demirjian, Sean Sullivan