U.S. Senate Panel Suspends Rules, Backs Price, Mnuchin for Cabinet

Source: By Susan Cornwell, Reuters • Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2017

WASHINGTON — Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee suspended committee rules and confirmed U.S. Representative Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services and banker Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary Wednesday on a straight party line vote, sending the nominations to the Senate floor.

Under pressure from their political base to block President Donald Trump’s nominees, Democrats stayed away from the meeting for a second day running. This normally would have stopped action, but Republicans plowed ahead by voting to suspend the rule that required at least one Democrat to be present for business to be conducted.

Republican members of the committee, who were all present, then approved the nominees 14-0. The nominees are considered likely to be confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate.

“We took some unprecedented action today due to some unprecedented obstruction on the part of our colleagues,” said the panel’s chairman, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was furious over the Democrats’ no-show. He said he had obtained approval from the Senate parliamentarian for the move suspending the rule.

Democrats were also unhappy.

“It’s deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the Finance Committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees’ serious ethical problems,” the Finance Committee’s top Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, said in a statement.

The Democrats said Tuesday they were boycotting Finance Committee proceedings because they wanted more information on Price’s stock trades in an Australian medical company and reports that Mnuchin’s former bank, OneWest, used automated “robo-signings” of foreclosure documents, which apparently contradicted statements the nominees had made to senators.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday boycotted another committee vote on Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who has expressed doubts about the science of climate change. That session ended without any committee action.

Republicans accused the Democrats of deliberately stalling the functions of Trump’s new administration. “They (the Democrats) had tons of information (about Price and Mnuchin),” Hatch said. “It’s another way of roughing up the president and his choice of nominees.”

But Democrats have come under pressure from liberal activists who want them to counter Trump at every turn, especially after his order last week blocking immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. It sparked a wave of protests in major U.S. cities.

One group that has been running television ads against Mnuchin blasted Republicans for the vote.

“Steven Mnuchin is such an illegitimate, compromised nominee that Republicans had to change the rules to force through his nomination,” said Kait Sweeney, press secretary of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

(additional reporting by Susan Heavey and David Lawder; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alan Crosby)