By Ed O’Keefe
WASHINGTON - Five days into President Donald Trump’s term and senators still have no agreement to consider several more of his picks to lead Cabinet departments.
The delays are unprecedented, given that the previous two presidents had at least seven nominees confirmed on their first day in office, and magnify the Trump administration’s slow announcement of people picked to fill out top positions across the federal government.
The lack of names means dozens of critical national security, financial, public health and other domestic policy positions sit vacant, with most federal agencies temporarily under the management of career civil service managers or holdovers from the Obama administration who could sit in place for months to come.
There was modest progress on Monday as senators confirmed Mike Pompeo, Trump’s choice to lead the CIA, by a vote of 66 to 32 - a notably high level of opposition for a nominee to lead the nation’s marquee spy agency. A Senate panel cleared Rex Tillerson for full consideration by the Senate to serve as secretary of state. Those moves came as top congressional leaders met with Trump at the White House for a social gathering that included talk of convincing Democrats to move along quickly with votes on some of the president’s top picks.
But there’s still no agreement, several aides in both parties said late Monday.
A final vote on Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil who Democrats have labeled as part of Trump’s impending “Swamp Cabinet,” could still be several days away. Other nominees, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to serve as United Nations ambassador, Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Elaine Chao - the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. - to run the Transportation Department - remain in limbo. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also scrapped plans to hold votes on two other picks - further delaying the formation of Trump’s government.
The stalemate is made worse by this week’s truncated calendar. Both caucuses are set to decamp to to off-site, closed-door meetings for most of the week to plot out legislative priorities for the year. On Wednesday, congressional Republicans are set to travel to a downtown hotel in Philadelphia, where they’ll meet with Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, while Democrats will head to a retreat center in West Virginia.
That just leaves Tuesday for potential floor votes, with Carson, Chao and Haley ready for consideration. Hearings for other nominees are also scheduled on Tuesday, as Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., meets with the Senate Finance Committee to consider his nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., appears before the Senate Budget Committee, which is reviewing his nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
It was unclear why the energy and natural resources panel postponed plans to vote on the nominations of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to lead the Interior Department. Several Senate aides didn’t return requests for clarification.
The vote to confirm Pompeo was yet another sign of how contentious the confirmation of top officials has become in recent years. The 32 votes against Pompeo on Monday night matched the combined number of “no” votes against Michael Hayden and Porter Goss to serve as former president George W. Bush’s CIA director - 15 and 17, respectively. Two of President Obama’s CIA directors, Leon Panetta and former Army Gen. David Petraeus, were confirmed unanimously. John Brennan, Obama’s third and final CIA director, was confirmed with 63 votes, after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., mounted a campaign to extract concessions from the administration regarding drone policy.
Fifteen Democrats voted with Republican senators to confirm Pompeo - including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and a handful facing 2018 reelection campaigns in states won by Trump last year.