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As confirmation hearings begin, Trump nominees in for a tense, rushed grilling

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson arrives for a meeting with Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will conduct Mr. Tillerson's confirmation hearing , Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Trump administration doesn't officially begin for nearly two weeks, but the first battles of the Trump years began Sunday – and are only going to intensify in the next several days.

Senate committees are poised this week to begin their examinations – always slightly contentious, sometimes fiery – of the billionaires, millionaires, current and former lawmakers, and conservative theorists and activists whom Donald Trump has selected for his cabinet and inner circle.

But before these hearings even began, Democrats complained the Trump nominees, many of them with exceedingly complex finances, haven't been vetted sufficiently by the Office of Government Ethics and demanded confirmation hearings be delayed. Republicans responded Sunday by suggesting their rivals' complaints were little more than a case of electoral sour grapes.

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"We need to sort of grow up here and get past that," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the CBS News program Face the Nation.

Mr. Trump's fellow Republicans dominate the committees that will hold as many as nine confirmation hearings this week, and control the Senate where the final confirmation votes will be held – but Democrats and even a few stray Republicans are girding to grill the Trump nominees.

Some of Mr. Trump's picks have not received rave reviews on Capitol Hill and a handful have been panned.

Thus begins another time-honoured ritual in a U.S. presidential transition. In this one, the men and women who soon will run giant bureaucracies housed in massive blocks-long buildings with stately façades and unbroken corridors will sit respectfully, even demurely, before a panel of lawmakers who will question them on their views, assess their managerial skills and inquire gravely after whether they paid state unemployment taxes on their children's babysitters.

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A fortnight later these figures will travel only in limousines that will seldom stop at traffic signals. But for several hours this week they will be supplicants and profess great respect for the lawmakers whose prerogatives they will swiftly view with contempt and whose views they will often willfully if not joyfully ignore.

The 2017 hearings come with a distinctive twist: This time multiple numbers of Trump nominees will appear before separate Senate committees in as little as a two-day span, splitting the attention of the media and public and thus perhaps diffusing and defusing controversy.

The rush to hold these hearings is so intense that Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics that customarily vets nominees, said Friday the hearing schedule "for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me." Indeed, several of the Trump nominees in those crowded confirmation hours face serious questions.

One is Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief nominated to be secretary of state, who will be questioned about his relations with, and perspectives on, Russia, where his company has done several significant business deals, and will face inquiries about his views on global climate change, which his company reluctantly but unambiguously acknowledged has human origins.

The goal here, from the point of view of Democrats and some Republicans, is to determine whether the country's chief diplomat will be "soft" on Russia and whether Mr. Tillerson will express views that diverge from those of Mr. Trump, who has expressed skepticism about climate change.

Another high-profile confirmation hearing will be focused on Mr. Trump's nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, prominent for her advocacy of charter schools and other elements of school choice. She will face questions about whether the country's chief education figure will, in fact, be an opponent of public schools.

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The most colourful session almost certainly will involve Senator Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump's selection to be attorney-general.

Long before he entered the Senate, Mr. Sessions was the object of a bruising confirmation hearing as a Ronald Reagan nominee to be federal judge in the Southern District of Alabama. He was accused of making racially insensitive remarks and his nomination was killed by the very committee that now is to rule on his fitness to be attorney-general.

In truth, presidential nominations for cabinet positions are rarely rejected, and only once in history has the Senate rejected the nomination of a new president.

That should be of special comfort for Mr. Sessions, as the Senate also has only once turned down a member of its fraternity. That occurred after then-president George H.W. Bush named a fellow Texan to be secretary of defence in 1989. On paper, John Tower was an ideal choice to lead the Pentagon; he had been the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But Mr. Tower's colleagues considered him an excessive drinker and a womanizer. Troubled also about business conflicts of interest, 53 of his fellow senators voted against him.

The most recent imbroglio involving Senate scrutiny of one of its own involved Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who won election from Nebraska as a Democrat and who, after he left the chamber, was nominated by Barack Obama to serve as secretary of defence. He found himself defending comments he had made about Israel and faced contentious hearings before winning confirmation in late February, 2013. In the end, 41 of his former colleagues voted against him – not enough to deny him the post – and he served in the Pentagon for nearly two years.

The other Trump nominees will face only sporadic tense moments, though none will be spared them entirely.

One of those moments will come when Senate labour committee Democrats face down Andrew Puzder, the chief of the company that owns fast-food Hardee's and Carl's Jr., on the issue of the minimum wage.

Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, who is clashing with the Trump transition team about high-level appointments in the Defence Department, nonetheless is in solid shape on Capitol Hill. He will have strong support even from Democrats, though he also will require a waiver to direct the Pentagon because federal law requires defence chiefs to have been out of the military for seven years.

In the end, these confirmation hearings almost always are significant mostly as forums for the legislative branch to remind the new members of the executive branch of the power that resides in Congress, which as the months pass will include oversight and vital budget questions.

But few nominees are rejected on Capitol Hill, though there are a handful of celebrated cases involving prominent political figures, including Andrew Jackson's nomination of his attorney-general, Roger Taney, to become treasury secretary in 1834. Shortly after the Taney nomination died, Mr. Jackson selected him to be Chief Justice. He was opposed by the three leading senators of the 19th century, perhaps of all time: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, together known as the "great triumvirate." He was confirmed anyway.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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