By Alan Fram
WASHINGTON — Democrats blocked planned Senate committee votes on President Donald Trump’s picks to be Health and Treasury secretaries on Tuesday, boycotting the session and demanding more information on the two nominees’ past financial behavior.
The extraordinary and abrupt postponement came as congressional Democrats, in a confrontational mood over Trump administration actions, also used lengthy speeches at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting considering Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general.
At another committee, lawmakers voted to send Trump’s pick to head the Education Department, Betsy DeVos, to the full Senate for a vote.
In a hastily called briefing for reporters, Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee said they would not attend the panel’s planned votes until they could ask more questions about Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the health nominee and Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury selection, who they said had misled Congress about their backgrounds.
The Democrats’ action prevented the Finance panel from acting because under committee rules, 13 of its members — including at least one Democrat — must be present for votes.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Price and Mnuchin would hold positions “that directly affect peoples’ lives every day. The truth matters.”
Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused Democrats of “a lack of desire to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.”
“They ought to stop posturing and acting like idiots,” he said.
In 2013 when Democrats controlled the Senate, Republicans boycotted a committee vote on Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, temporarily stalling it.
Democrats forcing the delay of Finance committee votes cited one report in The Wall Street Journal that Price received a special, discounted offer to buy stock in a biomedical company, which contradicted his testimony to Congress.
They said another report in The Columbus Dispatch showed documents revealing that Mnuchin had not been truthful with the Senate in the confirmation process in comments about how his bank OneWest had handled home foreclosures.
Republicans have supported both men, and both have strongly defended their actions.
Democrats have opposed Price, a seven-term congressional veteran, for his staunch backing of his party’s drive to scuttle Obama’s health care law and to reshape Medicare and Medicaid, which help older and low-income people afford medical care.
They’ve also assailed Price for buying stocks of health care firms, accusing him of using insider information and conflicts of interest for backing legislation that could help his investments. Price says his trades were largely managed by brokers and that he’s followed congressional ethics rules.
Democrats have criticized Mnuchin for not initially revealing nearly $100 million in assets, and were expected to vote against both nominees. They’ve also accused him of failing to protect homeowners from foreclosures and criticized him for not initially disclosing all his assets.
Separately, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 12-11 to approve DeVos, a GOP donor and conservative activist, as education secretary.
DeVos has long supported charter schools and allowing school choice, prompting opposition from Democrats and teachers’ unions who view her stance as a threat to federal dollars that support public education. Critics have also mocked her for suggesting that guns could be justified in schools to protect students from grizzly bears.
Two prominent Republicans on the education committee, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said they remained uncertain if they will vote for her on the Senate floor. Murkowski said DeVos has yet to prove that she deeply cares about America’s struggling schools and its children.
At the Judiciary committee, long Democratic speeches prompted panel Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to say their vote on Sessions might be delayed a day.
The meeting on Sessions’ nomination was coming with Democrats and demonstrators around the country in an uproar over Trump’s executive order blocking refugees. Even some Republicans were warning it could hinder anti-terrorism efforts.
In a more peaceful setting, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee quickly approved former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Energy secretary by 16-7, and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to head Interior by 16-6. But several of his other picks faced more spirited opposition from Democrats.
The full Senate easily confirmed Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary by a 93-6 vote.
Chao was labor secretary under President George W. Bush, and is wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. She would be a lead actor in pursuing Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion to improve highways, rail service and other infrastructure projects.