US Democrats boycott votes on Trump Treasury, health picks

With empty seats of Democrats at to his right, Senator Orrin Hatch speaks during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee to vote on the nominations of cabinet nominees Tom Price and Steve Mnuchin, on Capitol Hill, January 31, 2017

Washington (AFP) – US Senate Democrats blocked committee votes Tuesday on two of Donald Trump’s nominations for key cabinet posts, drawing White House charges of obstruction amid sharpening partisan tensions.

“Today Senate Finance Democrats refused to move forward with nominations of Mnuchin & Price,” Senator Ron Wyden, top Democrat on the finance committee, said on Twitter, referring to Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price, Trump’s pick for health secretary.

The White House offered a swift and firm rebuke of the boycott, with press secretary Sean Spicer calling it “truly outrageous” and accusing Democrats of seeking to stall the workings of government.

Despite the political clashes, one cabinet member managed to win confirmation Tuesday: Elaine Chao to be the next transportation secretary. Three others advanced to the full Senate, after winning approval in committee. 

But Democrats, alarmed by what they see as extreme picks for a raft of key posts and angered by Trump’s aggressive first week in office, have dug in their heels.

They also brought to a crawl the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to advance Trump’s pick for attorney general, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, forcing postponement of the vote on Sessions until Wednesday.

“This is not just a hearing on a nomination. This is a constitutional moment,” the number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said in an empassioned speech opposing the nomination of Sessions, who Democrats see as an architect of Trump’s controversial immigration executive order.

The furor over the order, which temporarily bars travel to the United States by refugees and by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, has colored the confirmation debate.

Tensions escalated Monday night after Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, an Obama holdover, for questioning the orders legality and instructing Justice Department lawyers not to defend it.

– ‘Unwilling’ to speak out? –

“My fear is that Senator Sessions will be unwilling or unable to stand up and speak out” against the president, as Yates did, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.

Wyden said Democrats’ concerns about Price focus on a “litany of ethics revelations” related to allegations that he invested in a medical company that stood to benefit from legislation the Georgia congressman co-sponsored. 

As for Mnuchin, Wyden tweeted that he “continued to fail to come clean on shady foreclosure practices that hurt Americans.”

Mnuchin, a Wall Street banker and Hollywood financier, was accused during his confirmation hearing of failing to disclose offshore holdings, and was grilled over the home mortgage foreclosure practices of a bank he owned.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch was furious as he sat in a hearing with no Democrats.

“It’s a sad time when this bipartisan committee has become a prop in a partisan sideshow,” he fumed. 

“I think they ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots.”

Senate rules require at least one lawmaker from the opposition party to be present for votes to be held. 

Democrats told Hatch they wanted more time to demand new information from the nominees.

Trump has repeatedly assailed Democrats for slow-walking nominations for political reasons.

“They should be ashamed of themselves!” Trump tweeted early Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Chao was confirmed as transportation secretary in a bipartisan Senate vote of 93-6.

Chao, who served as labor secretary under president George W. Bush, would be one of just four women in Trump’s cabinet.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to swear in Chao later Tuesday, making her the fourth confirmed official of cabinet rank, joining Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, CIA chief Mike Pompeo, and the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Three other Trump nominees advanced Tuesday to the full Senate, after being approved in committee: Rick Perry for energy secretary; Ryan Zinke for interior secretary; and Betsy DeVos to head the Education Department.


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