The Senate is set to hold confirmation hearings for nominees to President-elect Donald J. Trump’s cabinet Jan. 10, with the goal of having at least Rex Tillerson for State Department and retired Marine Gen. James N. “Mad Dog” Mattis at Pentagon in place upon the start of the new administration.
The other top priorities are Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) at the Justice Department and Steven Mnuchin at Treasury. Senate Republicans are conscious of stiffer Democratic opposition to those two names.
Although the entire hearing schedule is not yet public, the GOP senators are keen to stagger the hearings, so that each nominee gets his own time in the spotlight and senators are spared the need to pop in and out of hearings that are often held in different buildings on the Capitol grounds.
Working in favor of Trump getting his people on the clock are two changes pushed by Democrats to help President Barack Obama overcome Republican opposition. The first was legislation in 2011 that exempted 200 presidential appointments from Senate confirmation, and the second was the “nuclear option.”
The nuclear option was slang for how Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) changed Senate rules in November 2013, eliminating the 60-vote threshold when the chamber votes to end debate and force a vote on a confirmation–except for nominees to the Supreme Court. Often the vote to end debate is the real battle, because it allows a faction of 41 senators to block or delay a vote.
Mattis’s nomination for Secretary of Defense does not appear to have a political obstacle, as he has been praised by Democrats and Republicans alike, but there is the legal obstacle, which prevents an individual from becoming the Pentagon chief within seven years of his leaving military service. The restriction is part of the National Security Act of 1947, which created the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and combined the War and Navy Departments to create the Department of Defense. The only man granted a waiver from this restriction was Gen. George C. Marshall, who led DOD from 1950-to-1951.
Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013.
Reid’s nuclear option made ending debate on confirmations subject to a simple majority threshold, but the 60-vote requirement exists for legislation, such as the legislation to grant Mattis the waiver.
These are the confirmation hearings announced so far:
Betsy DeVos Jan. 11 at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) Jan 10 at the Senate Judiciary Committee