WASHINGTON — Confirmation hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees kick off Tuesday with his selection for attorney general, a position whose nominees have faced the most consistently contentious questioning over the past four decades.
The hearing on Trump’s choice of conservative Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for the job of the nation’s top law enforcement officer will be no exception, Democrats have promised, even though he will be facing his longtime colleagues on the Judiciary Committee.
Sessions’ appearance also will set the tone for a week packed with hearings on nine Trump nominees whose job will be to reverse many of the policies of the past eight years to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise that he would shake up Washington.
“Change was voted for and change we will get,” incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Sunday.
That is the battle line over which the two sides will fight. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and liberal allies complain that Republicans are trying to “jam” the nominees through the Senate even though many of them are “unfit” for cabinet posts.
In a rare visit with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Monday, Trump said he was confident the Senate will confirm his nominees, whom he said were at “the highest level,” despite the grueling questioning they’ll face.
“I think they’re going to do very well,” he said. “I think they’ll all pass.”
And Trump was bullish when asked about Sessions. He is opposed by Democrats as well as the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights for his stands on voting rights and immigration, and because of allegations he made racially insensitive remarks in the past.
“I think he’s going to do great — high quality man,” Trump said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met with Trump in Manhattan on Monday. They discussed the Senate’s agenda, “which of course includes confirming the cabinet appointments,” and “repealing and replacing Obamacare,” McConnell said afterward.
McConnell did not even acknowledge Schumer’s renewed pleas to delay hearings on the dozen or so of Trump’s 19 nominees who haven’t filed their legally required financial disclosure reports and ethics agreements to address potential conflicts.
Schumer reminded McConnell that he demanded completed ethics reports for President-elect Barack Obama’s appointees before their hearings. “I only ask respectfully that the Republican majority follow the same set of standards they had in 2009,” Schumer said.
McConnell on Sunday rejected any delays. “We need to have the president’s national security team in place on day one,” McConnell said.
Still, Schumer said Democrats will not give any nominee a free pass and last week announced they will target eight appointees for special scrutiny.
Three of them will be on Capitol Hill this week: Sessions and, on Wednesday, secretary of state nominee and recently retired ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as well as the education secretary appointee. But Monday evening, the committe chairman announced that the hearing scheduled for Wednesday for charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to be education secretary had been postponed until Jan. 17.
Trump will be the fourth president in a row whose election changed the party that controls the White House while also controlling the Senate. Each time, the Senate approved most cabinet choices without opposition, despite policy differences, records show.
Both political parties accept that a president must have his team in place so he can govern, said Frances H. Lee, a University of Maryland government and politics professor, and political scientist Sarah Binder at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The one way to force a nominee to withdraw is to find an ethical lapse, they said.
Yet Lee and Binder noted differences in this year’s confirmation process.
Trump has chosen a cabinet unlike any other in recent memory. He tapped more financiers and executives with wealth but little or no government experience than usual. He also named very conservative GOP lawmakers to oversee the environment, education and the budget.
Democrats can exert little influence over Trump’s cabinet choices because in 2013 they reduced the number of votes needed to end a filibuster on executive appointments from 60 to 51. There are 52 Republican senators.
And both parties are far more partisan than they were a decade ago — and Democrats might be more willing to vote against more nominees than minority parties have done in the past.
“It’s very clear that the Democrats are going to wage war,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
David Goldston, lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said he hopes that’s the case.
“There will be a substantial number of votes against the nominees,” Goldston said. “It sets the stage for the public and the Senate for substantive battles to come.”
Confirmation hearings schedule
Attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), 9:30 a.m., Judiciary Committee
Homeland Security secretary, retired Gen. John Kelly, 3:30 p.m., Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee
Secretary of state, retired ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, 10 a.m., Foreign Affairs Committee
CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), 10 a.m., Intelligence Committee
Education secretary, charter school advocate Betsy DeVos, 10 a.m. Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee
Transportation secretary, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, 10:15 a.m., Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
Defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, 10 a.m., Armed Services Committee
Commerce secretary, investor Wilbur Ross, 10 a.m., Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
Housing and Urban Development secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, 10 a.m., Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee