GOP-led Senate panel approves Zinke, Perry

Republicans pushed Trump's nominees to head the Energy and Interior Departments through a Senate panel

President-elect Donald Trump selects former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be secretary of energy.
AP image

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans pushed President Donald Trump’s nominees to head the Energy and Interior Departments through a Senate panel on Tuesday while other committees moved toward votes on his picks to head agencies in the thick of partisan battles over health care, legal protections, education and the economy.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee quickly approved former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Energy secretary by 16-7, and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to head Interior by 16-6. But several of his other picks faced more spirited opposition from Democrats.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee worked toward a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general, the panel’s top Republican praised the Alabama Republican.

“He’s a man of integrity,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “He’s a man of his word. And he’ll enforce the law, regardless of whether he would’ve supported passage of that law as a legislator.

The Senate Finance Committee was expected to advance Trump’s picks of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be health secretary and Steve Mnuchin, a wealthy former financier, to lead Treasury. And the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was considering conservative activist Betsy DeVos to head the Education Department.

All the nominees had strong Republican support, though final confirmation votes by the full Senate weren’t yet scheduled.

The Finance Committee’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, said he’d oppose Price and Mnuchin. Democrats have accused Price of insider trading in health industry stocks, which he’s denied, and criticized Mnuchin for not initially revealing nearly $100 million in assets.

“I cannot support nominees who treat disclosures like shell games and ethics laws like mere suggestions,” Wyden said.

Republicans were trying to help Trump staff his Cabinet in the second week of an administration that has ignited fights on multiple fronts. Trump by executive action has clamped temporary bans against refugees from all countries and visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations, and he’s seen relations with Mexico sour after insisting it will pay for a border wall. And he’s backing the GOP’s problematic efforts to dismantle President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Trump complained Monday night about the confirmation process, tweeting: “The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons. They have nothing going but to obstruct.”

Trump has nominated some of the wealthiest Americans to serve a president, leading to exhaustive ethics reviews. A Senate schedule interrupted by breaks has also delayed the process.

Democrats have targeted Price, a seven-term congressional veteran, for his staunch backing of his party’s drive to scuttle Obama’s health care law and to reshape Medicare and Medicaid, which help older and low-income people afford medical care.

They’ve also assailed Price for buying stocks of health care firms, accusing him of using insider information and conflicts of interest for backing legislation that could help his investments. Price says his trades were largely managed by brokers and that he’s followed congressional ethics rules.

The Finance panel was also expected to approve Mnuchin to become treasury secretary. Democrats have accused Mnuchin of failing to protect homeowners from foreclosures and criticized him for not initially disclosing all his assets.

The Judiciary panel’s vote on Sessions was coming with Democrats and demonstrators around the country in an uproar over Trump’s executive order blocking refugees. Even some Republicans were warning it could hinder anti-terrorism efforts.

Democrats have questioned Sessions’ devotion to enforcing civil rights laws.

DeVos, a wealthy GOP donor, has long supported charter schools and allowing school choice. That’s prompted opposition from Democrats and teachers’ unions, which view her stance as a threat to federal dollars that support public education.

Critics have mocked her for suggesting that guns could be justified in schools to protect students from grizzly bears. Health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called her an “excellent” choice.

The full Senate was on track to easily confirm Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary in a mid-day vote.

Chao was labor secretary under President George W. Bush, and is wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. She would be a lead actor in pursuing Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion to improve highways, rail service and other infrastructure projects.

On Monday evening, the Senate cleared the way for a final vote on Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state. Democrats wanted Tillerson to answer questions about Trump’s ban against entry for people from seven majority Muslim countries but lost a bid to delay his nomination.

AP reporters Maria Danilova, Mary Clare Jalonick and Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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