WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans took an extraordinary step Wednesday to move forward with two of President Donald Trump’s top Cabinet nominees after confronting a boycott from Democrats.
Republican lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee — the panel that oversees the nominations of Steve Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services — gathered for the second day in a row with Democrats on the committee refusing to show up.
The meeting marked a striking visual of the intensely partisan environment on Capitol Hill: The Republican senators of the committee filled one half of the dais, while every single seat on the other side was empty.
Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, pointed to the “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the gathering and allowed the Republicans in the room vote to suspend the rules of the committee.
The dramatic move could foreshadow strategy from Republicans over contentious battles still to come as Democrats try to use a variety of Senate procedures to stall the newly empowered GOP.
The most high-profile of upcoming fights is Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch, a nomination that would require at least 60 votes to confirm.
Democrats on the Finance Committee have raised serious concerns about Price and Mnuchin, arguing that the two nominees made misrepresentations in their testimonies before the Senate.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Democrats on the panel sent a letter to Hatch requesting that the two nominees provide more information about their past investments and actions.
Under committee rules, it is required that at least one Democrat be present for the panel to vote to send a nominee to the Senate floor. On Tuesday, not a single Democrat showed up, putting the two nominations at a standstill.
With the committee rules suspended, the 14 Republicans in the room voted to move the Mnuchin and Price nominations to the full Senate, even without the presence of a single member of the opposite party.
“They on their own accord refused to participate in the exercise,” Hatch said about the Democrats on the committee. “They have nobody to blame but themselves.”
Hatch said the Senate Parliamentarian had approved of the procedural maneuver, and insisted to reporters after the exercise was a “just utilization” of the rules.
“This is all approved by the Parliamentarian,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been.”
The committee’s call for a 9:30 a.m. gathering was so sudden that even some members of the media scrambled to arrive at the hearing room in the Dirksen building on time.
Hatch chuckled when confronted by questions from reporters about the little notice that the public received about Wednesday’s meeting.
“You were scrambling? Well, you know, that’s neither here nor there,” he said.
The chairman also said he had not yet spoken with the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden.
“I don’t feel a bit sorry for them,” Hatch said.
Democrats asked that Price offer clarify on “inaccurate and misleading answer to questions about privileged and discounted access to stocks,” and wanted Mnuchin to address “inaccurate and misleading answer to questions about the potentially illegal process known as robo-signing,” among other things.
But with the two nominations already having been sent to the full Senate, Republicans are unlikely to cooperate.
“I don’t care what they want at this point,” Hatch said.