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Senate Democrats Question Vetting Of Cabinet Picks With Slew Of Hearings

Speaking to reporters after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says all Cabinet nominees will be properly vetted, despite concerns voiced by Democrats and the Office of Government Ethics.
Drew Angerer
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Speaking to reporters after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says all Cabinet nominees will be properly vetted, despite concerns voiced by Democrats and the Office of Government Ethics.

The Senate is set to hold confirmation hearings starting on Tuesday for several of President-elect Trump's Cabinet choices. Democrats say majority Republicans are jamming the nominees through — nine of them scheduled just this week — and that several of them haven't yet completed or submitted all of the financial disclosure and ethics paperwork required.

It's a big challenge since many of the Trump nominees are wealthy business people with complex financial dealings. The vetting process is complicated because each committee that holds a hearing for nominations has its own set of rules about the information it requires, and each has its own way of making that information public.

Senate rules do require nominees to file a "background and financial disclosure statement" before being referred to the full Senate (though not necessarily before committee hearings take place).

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday. Tillerson's records are complete regarding an FBI background check, the necessary Office of Government Ethics paperwork and his financial disclosure form.

Democrats, however, also want Tillerson to submit his income tax records for the past few years, because of how complex the former Exxon CEO's financial dealings have been. Republicans are not going along with that.

To take another example, the Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for retired Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday. And not all of Kelly's records are in.

Are the vetting issues being raised by Democrats sour grapes?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly thinks so.

On CBS's Face the NationSunday, McConnell said then-minority Republicans confirmed seven Cabinet appointments the day President Obama was sworn in in 2008. "We didn't like most of them either," McConnell said. "But he won the election. So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration in having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate. I understand that, but we need to sort of grow up here and get past that."

After meeting with Trump at Trump Tower on Monday, McConnell also said that all nominees will be properly vetted, as they have been in the past.

Democrats have been pointing out that when roles were reversed, and McConnell was the minority leader, he sent a letter to then-majority Democrats saying financial disclosures must be complete prior to the confirmation hearing.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer read some of the letter on the Senate floor and mailed a copy of the letter back to McConnell.

Some of this is the old axiom, "Where you stand depends on where you sit," and now Republicans are sitting in the majority.

There are a few reasons Republicans are stacking up so many confirmation hearings this week.

One point McConnell makes is that President-elect Trump needs to have his national security team in place on Inauguration Day. Another reason is that the rush gives Democrats less time to prepare for and possibly delay some of the hearings.

What's more, with so many scheduled at once, including five of them on Wednesday (when, by the way, Trump is scheduled to have a long-awaited news conference), there will be less attention focused on any of them, and less opportunity for organized opposition to develop.

In a letter sent to Senate Democrats over the weekend, the head of the Office of Government Ethics says in the past most Cabinet nominees have been pre-cleared by his office before their nominations were made public and that the hearings are putting undue pressure on the agency officials.

Another Trump appointment is raising its own ethics issues: Trump is naming his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior adviser to the president.

The appointment has been rumored for weeks. Kushner, as a member of the president's staff, would not need Senate confirmation. But the New York real estate developer has deals with foreign countries, including China, raising further questions, including possible nepotism issues.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.