GOP suspends Senate rule, muscles Trump picks through panel

By Richard Lardner & Alan Farm 
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In the latest intensification of partisan hostilities, Republicans rammed President Donald Trump’s picks to be Treasury and health secretaries through a Senate committee on Wednesday with no Democrats present after unilaterally suspending panel rules that would have otherwise prevented the vote.

By a pair of 14-0 roll calls, the Senate Finance Committee approved Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be Health and Human Services secretary and banker Steve Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary. Both nominations must be confirmed by the full Senate.

The GOP’s show of brute political muscle came shortly before a testy session of the Senate Judiciary Committee at which lawmakers approved Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general. Later Wednesday, the full Senate planned to vote on confirming Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, as secretary of state.

Republicans and Democrats have battled virtually nonstop since Trump entered the White House 12 days ago over his refugee ban, his firing of the acting attorney general and GOP plans to erase former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

With Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, the GOP display of strength seemed to signal that the party will do all it can to block Democratic attempts to frustrate them.

Democrats had boycotted Wednesday’s abruptly called Finance Committee meeting, as they’d done for a session a day earlier, demanding more time to question the two men about their past financial practices.

Before approving the two nominees, the committee’s Republicans voted 14-0 to temporarily suspend a rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for any votes. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the Senate parliamentarian had approved the extraordinary tactic and blamed it on Democrats, saying their boycott was “one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen” and “a nefarious breach of protocol.”

In a written statement, top Finance panel Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon said, “It’s deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the Finance Committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees’ serious ethical problems

In a letter, Finance panel Democrats sent to Hatch early Wednesday, they wrote that they were not attending meetings because “both nominees have yet to answer important questions that impact the American people” about their financial backgrounds and submitted questions for them to answer. They also cited “significant concerns that both Mr. Mnuchin and Congressman Price gave inaccurate and misleading testimony and responses to questions to the Committee.”

In confirmed by the full Senate, Price would lead Republican efforts to erase Obama’s health law. Democrats cited a newspaper report that officials of an Australian biomed company said Price received a special offer to buy their stock at a reduced cost, despite Price’s congressional testimony that the offer was available to all investors.

Democrats also said a bank run by Mnuchin used a process for handling home foreclosures that critics have associated with fraud.

Both men and congressional Republicans said they’d done nothing wrong.

Separately, the Judiciary committee used a party-line 11-9 vote to send Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general to the full Senate. At that session, Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, argued angrily over previous committee testimony and Franken complained that his integrity had been abused.

Democrats had scuttled a planned vote Tuesday in the wake of Trump’s decision to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Several Democrats said they had no confidence Sessions would be able to stand up to Trump.

Wednesday was just the latest instance of building tensions among Republicans and Democrats over Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees.

But Democrats lack the numbers in the Senate to block Tillerson from becoming the nation’s chief diplomat. Republicans hold a four-seat advantage and during a procedural vote Monday on the nomination, Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia cast their ballots for Tillerson. They’re unlikely to change their minds.

Democrats boycotted a planned vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The vote was postponed.

In his current position, Pruitt has frequently sued the agency he hopes to lead, including a multistate lawsuit opposing the Obama administration’s plan to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Like Trump, Pruitt has cast doubt on the extensive body of scientific evidence showing that the planet is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame. Pressed by Democrats in his Senate confirmation hearing in January, however, Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump’s earlier claims that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to harm the economic competitiveness of the United States.

Another panel postponed a vote on Trump’s pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee’s FBI file.

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