February 12, 2017
It’s been like air traffic control management in the Senate recently.
Various Cabinet nominees stuck on the tarmac in a full ground stop. That could be Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, who finally has a confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Some have pushed back from the gate. Maybe Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, whom President Trump tapped for Interior secretary. Ben Carson, the president’s nominee for Housing and Urban Development secretary.
They’ve been through their hearings and are just waiting for debate on the floor. Others already taxied up to the active runway and are holding short. Former Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry, up for Energy secretary.
Some are waiting to be cleared for takeoff. WWE figure Linda McMahon who the president selected to run the Small Business Administration.
You can almost hear the patter in the radio traffic. Senate ground. Nominee One Golf Echo Tango. West ramp. Ready for taxi with Bravo.
Over the past week, four nominees found themselves locked in a holding pattern. They were still miles out from the airport, circling.
In some cases, circling for days.
Those nominees included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin.
They circled because Senate Democrats took full advantage of the institution’s rules, precedents and courtesies. Democrats stretched out debate, delaying confirmation votes via dilatory tactics. Such maneuvers are among the few options available to senators — especially when they toil in the Senate minority and lack the votes to upend a nomination.
“We are using everything we can to stop these awful nominees,” crowed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Staying late and speaking. Press conferences. Facebook Live.”
It all started more than a week ago. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scheduled a rare 6:30 a.m. session last Friday for the Senate to take a procedural vote to break a Democrat filibuster on DeVos’s nomination.
Senate Republicans voted to overcome the filibuster — known as “invoking cloture.” That put DeVos on a glide-path toward confirmation. But Senate rules permit the opponents of an issue or a nominee to continue debate for up to 30 hours after that cloture vote.
Democrats continued to debate DeVos a week ago Friday. But they didn’t burn off all the time. They didn’t even do so on Monday. The 30 hours finally expired at noon Tuesday.
Only then could the Senate vote to confirm DeVos, 51-50 (good Van Halen album, but perhaps not as enjoyable as “Women and Children First” or “Diver Down”). Vice President Pence presided over the Senate, casting the tie-breaking ballot. It was the first time in U.S. history a vice president broke a tie to confirm a Cabinet secretary.
Republicans hold a 52-48 advantage over Democrats in the Senate (two independent senators caucus with the Democrats). GOP Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, opposed DeVos, producing the 50-50 deadlock and pressing Pence into service.
But elongating the process gave Democrats a chance to pluck off a third GOP senator to oppose DeVos. If three Republicans voted nay, Democrats would have defeated the DeVos nomination. There would have been no tie for Pence to break.
“We thought we had some chance,” said Schumer when asked about the Democrats’ quest for a third Republican nay.
Still, Schumer believed Democrats won — even if they failed to torpedo DeVos.
“It will serve as a magnifying glass,” he said.
In other words, buying time helped Democrats define the nominees — and perhaps tarnish them and Mr. Trump later.
DeVos is damaged goods. And the narrative Democrats helped craft around her played out Friday morning when demonstrators temporarily blockaded the Education secretary from entering Jefferson Middle School, in Washington, D.C.
“Shame!” hectored protesters, as she retreated to her black SUV.
The die was cast.
“We have set the predicate for who these nominees are,” Schumer claimed. “Every time DeVos does something that might harm public education, millions of Americans are looking over her shoulder.”
Those who side with Trump might argue that Democrats are simply stalling nominees. There’s some truth to that. But Democrats reply they are simply exercising the parliamentary options available to them and which are afforded every senator.
Let’s look at how senators can slow things down — especially when compared to the House.
First of all, the House is a “majoritarian” institution. A determined majority rules. However, the Founders feared the tyranny of the majority. So they set up the Senate to periodically favor the rights of the minority. Democrats exploit that premise now.
Here’s how senators can slow things to a crawl:
Take your average, garden variety bill. The bill’s author may have 99 senators who want to start debate. But there’s one senator who doesn’t.
So, the writer of the bill must summon 16 senators to sign a “cloture petition” to overcome the objection of that sole senator on what’s called the “motion to proceed” to debate on the bill. If the sponsor files the cloture petition today (to end that senator’s filibuster and debate), it won’t “ripen” (meaning it’s available for a vote) until Monday.
By rule, there’s always an intervening day between filing a cloture petition and a vote to end a filibuster (voting on cloture). Sunday serves as the intervening day. Cloture votes (to halt debate) need 60 yeas (51 on cabinet nominations and lower court judges).
If the Senate invokes cloture to launch debate on the bill Monday, opponents get another 30 hours of debate time afterwards. In other words, the Senate won’t really begin debate on the bill until Tuesday.
The bill at hand is important. Thus, the Senate wants to invest a couple of days debating the issue. That easily gets the Senate to Thursday.
But that lone senator who hates the bill still stands in the way. So the author of the bill again must marshal 16 senators to sign a second cloture petition.
This could be filed on Wednesday. Therefore, the second cloture vote (to end overall debate) doesn’t blossom until Friday. Remember, cloture requires an intervening day.
So on Friday, the Senate takes a vote to bring ALL debate to a close and break that filibuster. If 60 senators (or 51, if the Senate is voting on an executive branch appointment other than the Supreme Court) vote yea, then the Senate is eventually headed toward final passage of the bill.
But not before that one, recalcitrant senator finishes gumming up the works one last time. He or she gets 30 hours of debate once again, following the second cloture vote on Friday.
That means the Senate probably doesn’t advance to a final vote to pass the bill until late in the day next Saturday. Final passage entails just a simple majority.
So this is how Democrats were able to slow things up on nominees.
With DeVos’s nomination on the docket, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed cloture petitions to end debate on the nominations of Sessions, Price and Mnuchin last week. The Senate cut off debate on the Sessions nomination Monday afternoon.
Then the 30 hour meridians started to set in. That triggered a Wednesday evening confirmation vote for Sessions. Immediately after the Sessions confirmation, the Senate voted to end debate on Price. That spawned a 1:45 a.m. confirmation vote on Friday. Right after that, the Senate voted to invoke cloture on Mnuchin.
Mnuchin could have faced a confirmation vote Saturday morning. But that roll call vote is now scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday.
So that’s the holding pattern in the Senate. Nominations circling overhead. Others delayed at the gate. Some finally lumbering down the runway.
It’s a crowded departure lounge at the Senate confirmation terminal. That’s because Senate Democrats think Trump’s nominees have a lot of baggage.