The seats for Democratic senators remain empty as a vote is held for Scott Pruitt’s nomination to be administrator of the EPA during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Feb. 2. | Getty
The Senate is barely functioning. And the future looks even bleaker.
Showdowns, government shutdown threats and “nuclear options” will loom over the chamber in the coming months. In fact, the tumultuous first month of President Donald Trump’s administration may turn out to be the most pleasant period of the 115th Congress.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Total GOP control of Washington should mean that Trump gets everything he wants out of Capitol Hill.
But Senate Democrats — the last line of Democratic defense — are slow-walking the installation of Trump’s Cabinet to a historic degree, so much so that Republicans haven’t even started yet on Trump’s legislative agenda. Republicans will eventually win all these confirmation battles, but it will be time-consuming and ugly.
How ugly has it gotten? Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against the nomination of Elaine Chao for secretary of Transportation. Chao happens to be the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Chao was approved easily — the vote was 93-6 — but Schumer’s “no” vote infuriated many Republicans. Yet it was also the embattled Schumer’s way of sending a message to both his base and GOP counterparts – “I will do whatever it takes.” He joined the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker in voting again Chao.
“The Senate is coming apart,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
“It’s not a good time. It’s not a good time,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Democrats, many of whom openly loathe Trump and are furious over his refugee crackdown – which Democrats describe as a “Muslim ban” – and other executive actions, have used all the procedural arrows in their quiver to slow down confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. They’ve boycotted committee meetings, refused to let panels meet in the afternoon, dragged out votes as long as possible, and refused to agree to even normal floor requests. They are voting against Trump’s Cabinet picks in unprecedented numbers, arguing that Trump doesn’t deserve even a patina of partisan support.
And their tactics have been partly successful.
The Senate’s confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet is the slowest in modern history, spanning back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had their whole Cabinets confirmed at this point, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were nearly finished and even George H.W. Bush had nine of his Cabinet secretaries in place despite opposition from a Democratic Senate.
Trump, though, has only four Cabinet secretaries confirmed, although several more — including Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions — are expected to clear this week.
Democrats say it’s Trump’s own fault for the slow pace. Democrats claim if Trump had picked better qualified candidates for these posts, the slowdown wouldn’t have happened.
“They are extraordinarily fringe cabinet nominees driving this conversation,” insisted liberal Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a central advocate of slowing Trump’s agenda.
McConnell has responded to the delay tacits by exploiting his majority status to grind down the Democrats. He scheduled a rare 6:30 a.m. Senate vote on Friday to move forward Betsy DeVos for Education secretary. He has delayed the opening times for the Senate each day to evade Schumer’s objections. When Democrats refused to attend committee hearings to vote on nominees, Republicans changed the committee rules so they could jam them through. They moved forward on nominations even before background checks are complete or refused Democratic demands for more information.
Republicans insist Democrats will eventually get tired of gnashing their teeth over Trump. He’s the president and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s a message you hear over and over from Republicans — Trump won, let it go.
“I don’t see how they sustain their anger and their lack of participation in the governing process very long and still come back in 2018. I just don’t think it’s an agenda for success,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas.) “So my hope is that once they sort of get over the fact that Donald Trump won … they’ll try to be more productive.”
GOP senators add that Democrats made their own troubles on Trump’s nominees by invoking the “nuclear option” on executive-branch nominees and lower-court judges in 2013, making it possible to push them through on a simpler majority vote. Before that, it took 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, forcing presidents and the majority to cut deals with the minority party.
The prospect of another “nuclear option” fight looms over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a move that would cause a volcanic uproar from the minorty party. Yet Democrats won’t rule out blocking him and Republican are threatening to kill the supermajority requirement to get him confirmed, potentially watering down the filibuster even further.
However, the real payback from Democrats may come later in year. The first half of 2017 will be dominated by bills that McConnell can push through on a simple majority — including Obamacare repeal and a tax-reform package.
But government funding will run out on April 28, and Democrats could filibuster any bill to keep the government open— and force a showdown over keeping the government down. It’s unlikely to happen, admitted Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), although other Democrats suggest it could.
The summer will see a vote on increasing the nation’s $20-trillion-plus debt ceiling. Republicans can push an increase through the House on their own, but need 60 votes in the Senate. Democrats could get leverage there.
It is the annual appropriations bills, though, where Democrats have their most power. GOP congressional leaders and the White House already believe Senate Democrats will block most or all of those bills, looking to gain an upper hand over Trump and Republicans. If Trump goes too far with policy riders — totally defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance — or makes too deep cuts to the EPA or other health and safety programs, Democrats suggest they’re willing to go the mat.
“I don’t know, depends on what they propose,” replied Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) when asked about funding brinkmanship. “We’re not going to just shut the government down to shut the government down. That’s not what this is about.”
A number of senators, including those in his own party, said Trump is going to have to dramatically tone down his rhetoric and attempt to build some relationships with Democrats.
“I hope and believe that, sooner rather than later, the president will realize that he has to establish some [bipartisan] relationships,” McCain said.
McCain added that the first two weeks of the Trump presidency have felt like “two months.” And some longtime legislators had to dredge up dire events to make today’s political battles seem normal.
“People ask me if I’m worried about our country right now. And I say, well I am. But I always try to put things in perspective,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “This is a country that survived a civil war followed by the assassination of our president followed by the impeachment of the next president. We got through that, so the Senate will get through this.”