President Donald Trump may be relishing the chance to shake up his administration. But the Senate is threatening to upend his plans.
After using Twitter to abruptly oust his secretaries of state and veterans affairs and promote his CIA chief, the president is counting on the Senate GOP’s slim majority to confirm three new Cabinet members in the coming months — and potentially more, should his EPA administrator succumb to a torrent of withering headlines. Republicans aren’t pleased.
“It’s unusual. But it’s the president’s prerogative,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said of the cascading nominations. “I think a lot of us would appreciate the stability of being able to continue to work with individuals [in the Cabinet] who have been here awhile.”
The White House expects a series of tough confirmation battles, according to senators, aides and White House officials who are tracking the nominations of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, Gina Haspel to be CIA director and Ronny Jackson to be VA secretary.
Marc Short, Trump’s congressional liaison, is spearheading the White House’s efforts on Capitol Hill and has begun mobilizing support for the president’s appointments. His office is working closely with conservative activists to drum up enthusiasm and is preparing to pressure red-state Democrats to stand with Trump.
If Democrats offer unanimous opposition to any of the Cabinet nominees, Republicans are looking at a heavy lift — or worse, a failed confirmation vote if some GOP senators also balk. That would throw the Trump administration only further into disarray.
But even GOP senators are getting impatient with the chaos coming from the White House, with clear, if quiet, dissatisfaction with Jackson’s nomination in particular.
GOP senators viewed former VA Secretary David Shulkin as an ally — and they see Jackson’s nomination as an embodiment of Trump’s chaotic management style. Few have publicly committed to voting for Jackson.
“I could see a case where he’s not supported just as a proxy on the way Trump is so out of control with all that he’s doing with nominees. I could see it happening,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to frankly discuss the nomination. “It doesn't appear he’s got the most basic qualifications for the job. So I could see him not being confirmed.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already threatening to keep the chamber in on nights and weekends to deal with a lingering backlog of lower-level nominees. And if Democrats continue to deploy procedural hurdles, Republicans may consider a change in Senate rules to expedite Trump’s nominees.
The White House could soon cause even more trouble for the GOP: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing daily news reports chronicling a sweetheart deal on Capitol Hill lodging, which follows scrutiny of his first-class travel arrangements. The White House has considered firing Pruitt, which would give the GOP yet another Cabinet-level seat to fill.
It's an unwelcome challenge for the White House and Republican lawmakers, who now face the prospect of multiple confirmation hearings in a matter of months. And unlike at the beginning of a new administration when a large transition team labors over each high-profile nomination, a spate of Cabinet-level confirmations this spring threatens to swamp an understaffed White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
“It is harder to do multiple confirmations at once,” said Phil Schiliro, who worked on President Barack Obama’s transition team and was later his director of legislative affairs.
It’s not what Republicans had in mind ahead of a brutal midterm campaign — especially after they jammed through Trump’s nominees last year in a series of ugly confirmation battles, highlighted by Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
And one year after the first series of Cabinet battles, Republicans face steeper odds: They lost a Senate seat in Alabama and are without Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as he recovers from cancer treatment, leaving them with 50 votes to Democrats’ 49.
The White House has acknowledged this as much. Short’s deputy, Paul Teller, is already whipping up conservative support for Pompeo. He helped organize a letter, published Monday, signed by dozens of conservative leaders endorsing Pompeo, from former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese to anti-abortion activist Marjorie Dannenfelser.
White House officials are also dealing with growing resentment within the GOP, particularly over the Twitter firing of Shulkin and Trump’s plan to replace him with Jackson; the White House physician is well-liked in the West Wing but is widely considered unprepared for the job.
“The doctor is profoundly unqualified and unprepared for the nature of the assignment. He has no core competency at this,” said Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The chances for humiliation are high. You take a normal person and tell him he has three weeks to study for the astrophysics Ph.D.-level exam, there’s no good result there.”
White House officials are taking nothing for granted. They’re aware that Jackson will face questions over his competency, Haspel will be grilled over her role in the CIA’s past use of torture and Pompeo will be pressed over what critics say was his politicized approach to running the CIA. They are hoping red-state Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won will give them a cushion on all three nominees.
“I don’t think in this environment there’s any easy nomination,” said a senior White House official.
Sen. Rand Paul’s early opposition to Haspel and Pompeo has further complicated things for the GOP. Because the Kentucky Republican serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and most Democrats oppose Pompeo, the nominee may have to clear the panel with an unfavorable vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can then call him directly to the floor, but it’s an embarrassing blemish.
Still, Pompeo’s nomination seems the safest, with Republicans acknowledging the need for a secretary of state ahead of imminent talks with North Korea.
“Mike will be confirmed before the recess” at month’s end, said a second Republican senator. “Sen. McConnell is not going to allow the Foreign Relations Democrats and Rand Paul to stop that nomination from going forward.”
Haspel’s nomination is shakier, with as many as a half-dozen Republican senators mulling whether to join Paul in opposition over her links to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” tactics — known as torture to CIA critics. Those Republicans, however, are reluctant to provide the deciding vote against her and are keeping their options open.
Many will look to McCain, who was tortured himself in Vietnam as a prisoner of war. How Haspel fares at her confirmation hearing may also make a difference.
“They will carefully listen to what Sen. McCain has to say. He has a huge amount of respect here as you would expect,” Rounds said, adding, “This is one of those decisions where you have to listen to [Haspel’s] testimony.”
Ultimately, Republicans believe they can get Haspel confirmed with help from some of the 10 Democrats up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016. White House officials and allies on the Hill say they will hammer Democrats if they threaten to reject her.
“Are they all going to vote against the first woman nominated to be CIA director because she was so mean to terrorists?” the second Republican senator said.
One thing is certain: The Senate will be under a presidential microscope. Trump has repeatedly singled out the chamber as ineffective and slow, a consequence of its byzantine rules and Democratic resistance to the president’s agenda. Republicans are beginning to take heed.
McConnell sent his caucus a letter last week stating that the Senate would work Fridays, nights and weekends if necessary to confirm Trump’s nominees, according to GOP senators. Beginning next week Republicans will work to confirm three judges and nominees at the National Labor Relations Board, Labor Department and EPA.
Sick of the minority’s delays, Republicans also plan to make Democrats pay politically for what they say is obstruction of Trump’s nominees. Each confirmation will take the better part of a week on the Senate floor if Democrats drag them out — and Republicans want the public to know about it.
If Republicans get frustrated enough, they may also consider changing the Senate rules to allow for swifter votes on Trump’s nominees.
“Those three confirmations will just call more attention to how the Democrats have been dragging their feet on the confirmation process. And my guess is there will be some effort on our side to do something about that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership.