Politics

The Democrats Show Some Spunk

Two days of obstruction on Capitol Hill.

Senate Finance Committee empty chairs
Democrats’ empty seats surround Sen. Orrin Hatch during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

We are on Day 12 of the Trump administration, and Senate Democrats have begun slowing the pace of Capitol Hill down to a crawl.

It started Monday night with a surprise procedural move, just as Congress was returning to session. The Senate Finance Committee was scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. to vote on Steve Mnuchin’s nomination for Treasury secretary. Before the meeting could start, though, committee chair Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office sent out a note that Democrats had invoked the two-hour rule, which prevents meetings from going beyond two hours after the Senate convenes. “While not surprising,” Hatch’s team said, “this is an unfortunate and needless delay that simply means the Committee will reconvene tomorrow morning to vote on the nominee for U.S. Treasury Secretary.” The committee decided to roll Mnuchin’s vote in with that of Tom Price, whose vote was already scheduled for the next morning.

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Except the committee could not meet Tuesday morning, either. The Senate Democrats on the committee didn’t show up—denying a quorum and delaying the votes indefinitely.

Many Democrats will not admit that there’s a new grit to their efforts to obstruct the passage of power following two consecutive weekends of mass protests, flooded email and phone lines, and a series of executive orders culminating with Friday’s travel restriction and freeze on refugee acceptance. But clearly something’s up.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose vote carries additional symbolic weight as head of the caucus, announced Monday that he would vote against a group he’s begun calling “the big eight”: Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Price, Steve Mnuchin, Scott Pruitt, and Andy Puzder. He’s demanded that each nominee still up for a vote “issue a public statement on his or her views of President Trump’s Muslim Ban.” Prior to her confirmation Tuesday afternoon, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was the least controversial unconfirmed nominee. When she didn’t respond to a Monday letter from Sen. Bill Nelson seeking her answers on the executive order, though, Schumer voted against her, even while most of his caucus supported her. Constituent pressure matters.

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It was the hearing boycott on Tuesday, though, that drew out the dark side of the typically gentle Sen. Orrin Hatch. Crap, idiots, and pathetic were some of the words that flew out of the finance chairman’s mouth following Democrats’ no-show, a denial of presence to which there’s no apparent resolution.

Democrats argue that both Price and Mnuchin lied in their testimony. While Price said he never got a “sweetheart” deal to buy privileged stock for an Australian biomedical company, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday night that he was “one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors who were invited last year to buy discounted shares of the company—an opportunity that, for Mr. Price, arose from an invitation from a company director and fellow congressmen.” Mnuchin, meanwhile, claimed during his hearing that his former bank, OneWest, “did not ‘robo-sign’ ” foreclosure documents. The Columbus Dispatch reported this weekend that OneWest did do that in Ohio, and the Intercept has reported on more cases.

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So what do Democrats want?

“We want Hatch to bring them back,” Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters on Tuesday, “to tell them to explain the lies they said to two very Republican publications”—the Wall Street Journal and the Columbus Dispatch—and to “make sure they disclose everything and don’t keep forgetting $100 million here and these stock trades there, and ultimately we will bring it to a vote.” Brown said he would be fine with answers in writing in lieu of in-person appearances. “I want them to disclose this information that they seem not to want to disclose,” he said. “I want Sen. Hatch to do his job.”

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Sen. Debbie Stabenow added that Democrats are trying to verify the story with the biomedical company in Australia but said there’s a “12-hour difference in time.” What a pity this time delay must be for Senate Democrats.

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Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, though, did show up this morning. The ostensible purpose was to vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. They never got around to that. I couldn’t help but notice that Democrats on the committee, after being asked politely by the chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley, to keep their remarks to five minutes, were not keeping their remarks to five minutes. They weren’t keeping them to 10 or 15 minutes, either. There wasn’t really much else they needed to say beyond what the ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said in her comprehensive case for voting against Sessions. That didn’t stop them. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former committee chair, spoke for roughly three millennia. Sen. Dick Durbin, too, and by then, it was lunchtime. What was going on, aside from them wanting to get as much on the record against Sessions as they could?

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The judiciary committee convened at 9:30 a.m. The Senate was gaveled in around noon. The hearing was scheduled to last beyond 2. Remember that two-hour rule?

Sessions’ vote is now scheduled for Wednesday, and Feinstein says Democrats aren’t setting up a boycott. If you had asked me a couple of days ago whether there was any chance Democrats would break their word about showing up to vote tomorrow, I wouldn’t have taken it seriously. I’m not so sure now.

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