It was very early last Friday morning, and the Senate was at work on another late night. A couple of young pages were up well past their bed time again. Floor aides were tired. Senators had been told to expect more votes around 2 am.
Democrats had already forced all-night sessions on Monday and Tuesday, making this the third time the Senate had been in session after midnight in just four days.
But at 12:35 am, the Senate floor was quiet. No Senator was speaking about the nomination of Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services.
To the average viewer, it might have been a good time to just have the final vote, and move on to something else.
But Democrats were in no mood to speed things up.
So, the clock ticked, as Democrats made sure to run all 30 hours of debate time – forcing the Senate to wait until 1:45 am to vote on Price’s nomination.
How long will this go on in the battle over the Trump Cabinet? The answer – as long as Democrats want to use the rules of the Senate to stretch out the confirmation process. Even without a 60 vote requirement for Senate filibusters, the minority can still make it hard to move forward.
1. Who gets voted on next in the Trump Cabinet? At 7 pm on Monday, the Senate will vote on the nomination of Steven Mnuchin to be Secretary of Treasury. After that, Senators will vote on David Shulkin to be the head of Veterans Affairs. And on Tuesday morning, the Senate will vote on the nomination of Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration. Democrats could have forced more procedural votes on Shulkin and McMahon – and up to 60 hours of extra debate – but they agreed to allow those votes to go forward. So, that is three more nominees who will be approved for President Trump.
2. What nominations are still on the calendar? There is still a pretty sizeable chunk of the Trump Cabinet that remains in limbo, awaiting Senate debate and votes. All of them have gone through their confirmation hearings and had votes in committee, but it’s not clear which ones Democrats might agree to expedite. With the Senate scheduled to be off the week of February 20, watch closely to see which nominations get approved this week, and which ones are left to late February, or even early March.
3. Which nominee will get the full late night debate treatment? After Democrats forced late night debates on Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Betsy DeVos (Education) and Tom Price (HHS), one would think they will do the same thing on Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is line to head the EPA. Many environmental and progressive groups have been after Pruitt since the beginning, arguing that he is beholden to Big Oil and will try to undermine the mission of the EPA. But as with DeVos, Price and Sessions, they have not been able to crack a wall of GOP support for President Trump’s nominees. But they’re still trying.
4. How long can the delays from Democrats go on? Without time agreements between the parties, Democrats could keep the Senate stuck in nomination debates for several weeks on the Trump Cabinet. Let’s take this week for example. After the Senate votes Tuesday on Linda McMahon for SBA, then the GOP can bring another nomination to the floor. Let’s say you want to vote on Pruitt. You could file cloture on Monday evening, vote to limit debate on Wednesday, and then have a final vote late on Thursday night. That shows you how much time it takes to get one nomination through the Senate. Multiply that by six on the Cabinet picks that are waiting for action. It takes time.
5. Why isn’t the Senate working on legislation? I was asked a number of times in recent days why the Senate isn’t doing a “two track” strategy, to get work done each day both on a nomination and on legislation. It sounds great, but it’s not that easy, because the clock for debate doesn’t run on a nomination when you are working on legislation, unless both parties agree to do that. Switching back and forth from bills to nominations also requires procedural votes – and that takes time. So, when you hear anyone say that Republicans aren’t doing it right – it’s not really that simple.
6. Can Republicans make it go any faster? The Senate operates by unanimous consent. If Democrats want to make life easy for the GOP, they could agree to speed nominees through the Senate in just a few minutes. On Inauguration Day in 2009, the Senate approved seven nominees of President Obama on a single voice vote. But if you want to throw sand in the gears, you can slow things down. Really, the only way to get these nominations done without the help of Democrats, is to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No weekends. No time off.
7. Here’s an example of how long it takes. Let’s take the Mnuchin nomination, and play a game of “what if.” What if, early on Friday morning, the Senate had decided to work through the weekend? The Majority Leader would probably have tried to lay down several cloture motions on nominations, which would have required a number of procedural votes. So, the 30 hour clock on Mnuchin would have run out around 9-10 am on Saturday. After approving Mnuchin, then the GOP could have voted to invoke cloture on another nominee – add 30 hours, and you could have had a final vote about 4 pm on Sunday. Invoke cloture on another nominee, and have that vote around 11 pm on Monday. That’s three nomination votes by late Monday night. Instead, the Senate took the weekend off, and they will get three nominations done by Tuesday morning.
As you see, getting something done in the Senate can take a lot of time.