When the 115th Congress is sworn in next month, 11 of the Senate’s 48 Democrats will hail from New England. They are also, on the whole, particularly outspoken, articulate, combative, and unconcerned about playing to the safe center for future re-election.
That puts the region’s Senators in position to play an outsized role in their first big assignment: grilling Donald Trump’s picks for the 21 cabinet positions requiring Senate confirmation.
Though the full Senate gets to weigh in and vote, the real action comes in the committee hearings, where members get to question the nominees directly.
Confirmation hearings for cabinet positions are not simple Q and As with the nominee. They can stretch over days, sometimes with additional witnesses. They will draw enormous public interest—especially from concerned liberals—and will undoubtedly be used by Democrats both to criticize the nominees and as a form of trial in absentia for Trump.
Democrats don’t have the numbers to stop the confirmations on their own. Republicans will hold the majority in the committees and the full Senate—which is all they need, thanks to a rule change passed by Democrats in 2013, when they were in charge and weary of Republicans obstructing Obama’s nominations with the 60-vote requirement to invoke cloture and force a vote.
But, Democrats on the corresponding committees can press issues of concern, and in some cases might raise sufficient red flags to convince some Republicans to withdraw support and derail a nomination.
Scuttling a nominee isn’t the only purpose they’ll have in mind, though.
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, for example, is expected to have a smooth road to confirmation as Secretary of Defense—but first he’ll get a New England-flavored grilling over his views, when he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-January.
Jack Reed of Rhode Island—who might have been on Hillary Clinton’s short list for that Defense Secretary position had she won—serves as the ranking Democrat on that committee. He has stated his concern about putting a recently retired officer, instead of a civilian, in charge of the Defense Department. That’s in addition to expected questions on troop readiness; Trump’s stated desire for additional defense spending; strategies for the war on terror; and other potential military issues.
Also on the committee are Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Angus King of Maine, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Joining them, we learned last week, will be lightning rod Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (Warren's decision to join the Armed Services Committee, is seen in political circles as a move to caquire national security experience should she decide to run for president.)
Keep an eye on Warren and Shaheen to query Mattis on the incoming administration’s intentions toward women serving in action, gays in the military, and investigating sexual harassment.
New England Senators will also loom large in the appointment-TV hearings for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson.
Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Shaheen, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, are all expected to be on hand for the Tillerson hearing, held by the Foreign Relations Committee. Tillerson’s lack of government and diplomatic experience, as well as his corporate history, will be picked at, but look for Markey to try to pin Tillerson down on climate change. The Secretary of State plays a critical role negotiating multilateral climate change agreements—if Trump can be persuaded of its importance. As ExxonMobil’s chairman and CEO, Tillerson has expressed some public interest in combatting global warming, including support for a carbon tax, but there’s reason for skepticism about his intentions.
Markey, a decades-long veteran of committee hearings in the House, is particularly fond of the form of “question” that sounds like a teacher berating a failing student. Having just joined the Senate in 2013, he will be getting his first crack at confirming a Republican President’s nominees.
Expect Markey’s skepticism—or outright hostility—to come out on display when Markey’s Environment and Public Works Committee gets its crack at Scott Pruitt, Attorney General of Oklahoma, for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Markey has already declared that he “will vigorously oppose Scott Pruitt’s nomination,” accusing him of “carrying water for Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry.”
Rest assured that climate hawks Sanders and Whitehouse, both on the Environment and Public Works Committee as well, will join Markey in the effort to torpedo Pruitt.
If the prospect of that trio questioning Pruitt isn’t enough for you to start pull up a chair and some popcorn, how about liberals Warren, Sanders, and Whitehouse firing away at an anti-union restaurant-chain executive, who opposes the federal minimum wage, who is slated to run the Labor Department?
Labor nominee Andy Puzder will also face Chris Murphy of Connecticut, newly elected Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and New England’s lone Republican Senator, Susan Collins of Maine, when he goes for his hearing at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
It’s Warren who Puzder should really buckle up for. Warren has demonstrated skill, and eagerness, in committee hearings since joining the Senate. Like the law professor she is by training, Warren comes prepared to aggressively pursue lines of questions to make her point, more than to merely elicit a response.
As for Hassan, who enjoyed strong labor support and endorsed a $12 national minimum wage during her campaign, her questioning might not go as viral as that of Warren or Sanders—who must be chomping at the bit for a confrontation with Puzder—but it should certainly get her on TV back in New Hampshire.
That same committee will also handle the confirmation hearing for another controversial cabinet pick—one who especially infuriates many liberals: Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.
Expect the New England Democrats to come after Devos for her commitment to charter schools and school vouchers, and to press her for assurances that public school systems will not be threatened.
Markey and Sanders have also, last week, demanded that DeVos pay more than $5 million they say a pro-voucher political action committee of hers owes over campaign finance violations.
HEALTH, HUMAN SERVICES: Price
Another controversial choice, Georgia Congressman Tom Price for the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department, will face no New Englanders at the Finance Committee, which is responsible for holding his formal hearings and voting out a recommendation to the full Senate. But, the Senate HELP Committee traditionally questions HHS nominees, so the same group will get a crack at Price’s history of votes and positions on ObamaCare, reproductive rights, and other health issues.
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Sessions
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will lead the questioning against Trump’s Attorney General nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Athough Senators are historically gentler and more deferential toward one of their own in that confirmation hot seat, there will be plenty of tough questions for the conservative Southern Senator. Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut are also on that committee.
Rick Perry, nominee for the Energy Secretary, and Ryan Zinke, nominee for Interior Secretary, both go in front of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Maine’s Angus King of Maine will represent New England there.
HOUSING, URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Carson
The confirmation hearing for Ben Carson, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, should be another contentious one—and it falls to the Banking Committee, where both Warren and Reed will be well-prepared to grill him.
It should be noted that, in addition to these cabinet-level positions, the Senate confirms dozens and dozens of other appointments, within the major departments and at a variety of other agencies and commissions. Some of those hearings may turn out to be just as interesting, even if they draw less attention. A thorough overview of which committees handle each of these appointments was recently compiled by the Congressional Research Service https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL30959.pdf.
And remember, all of this is just an opening act for the big confirmation battle: Trump’s impending nominee for the open Supreme Court seat, still open since Antonin Scalia died in February.