The Republican-dominated 115th Congress looks to hit the ground running when it opens for business on Jan. 3. While it plans to begin straightening out policy priorities with the new Trump administration, the first order of business will be working on the many nominations the President-elect has sent its way.
Everything is quiet on Capitol Hill this week during the holiday recess, but technically, the 114th Congress is still in session. Senate Republicans, in a bit of parliamentary trickery, are keeping watch to ensure President Barrack Obama cannot make any nominations that could automatically slip through while Congress is away.
That technicality will remain in place through next Tuesday, when the new Congress opens for business “with lots of quirky ceremonies, lots of happiness, and lots of bipartisan pledges of goodwill,” said David Hawkings, Senior Editor of CQ Roll Call. “And that lasts a few hours until they get down to the real business,” Hawkings told Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Holding up some of the confirmation proceedings will be a lengthy vetting process for the nominees.
“There are all kinds of FBI background checks, and long questionnaires about every investment every cabinet secretary has ever made. And because this incoming cabinet is made up of more really successful people in the business world than ever before, those questionnaires and background checks are taking longer than they have for cabinet secretaries,” said Hawkings.
Two confirmations hearings of particular interest expected to begin before inauguration day are the controversial nominations of Exxon-Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice for Attorney General.
Like Trump, the main criticism of Tillerson has been his lack of experience in the public sector. While he hasn’t held a diplomatic post, his decades of work in the oil business has taken him around the world, including Russia, where the Texan developed close ties to President Vladimir Putin. And while Tillerson hasn’t held public office, Hawkings said his lobbying and fundraising efforts have put him on the radar of most members of Congress.
“The big question is can he translate his business acumen into being the world’s top diplomat, and will his career in dealing with Russia end up being considered too much Russia friendliness for the Senate?” asked Hawkings.
For Sessions, accusations of racism dogged his early career when the Senate Judiciary Committee denied a federal judgeship 30 years ago. It was alleged that he had made racist remarks and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American”. Sessions has defiantly denied he is a racist ever since. Still, Hawkings said the question will likely be brought up during his confirmation.
“I think that there are still some outside interest groups that are still rankled by this, that it points to an aspect of Mr. Sessions’ ideology that has not been surfaced in recent decades,” Hawkings said.
And while there have been no new allegations that Sessions has said anything hateful toward African Americans or any other race, Hawkings said some critics indicate they want to explore his repudiation of earlier charges.
“(They) think his conservatism would make his policies at the Justice Department effectively prejudiced against African Americans,” said Hawkings.
The issue of racism has also been used in describing the selection of congressional staff. While the Congress set to take office next week will be the most racially diverse ever, the staffers who work behind the scenes are anything but.
Incoming Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is among those on Capitol Hill who are trying to get Congress to accept many of the same diversity requirements it regularly imposes on federal agencies and public corporations.
Among the first statements Chuck Schumer has made even before taking over as Democratic leader is that he want to open a non-partisan office in the Senate to do more in the way of hiring non-Whites, said Hawkings.
“If you want a legislative staff that can help members make policy for the country, you probably want a diversity of experience,” Hawkings said.
Also looming in the early days of the 115th Congress is a united Republican Congress and White House eager to exercise their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.
“It’s a two-step process in which they first have to formally adopt a budget for funding the program this year, which creates a legislative vehicle for the repeal of Obamacare in a way that the Democrats can’t filibuster,” explained Hawkings.
The special legislative process is called “reconciliation,” a word Hawkings promises those around Washington will be hearing a lot in the weeks to come.