Tensions erupt in Senate after chaotic day on Trump nominees

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Story highlights

  • Party leaders squared off after a fast-paced and chaotic morning
  • Democrats stalled several of President Donald Trump's Cabinet picks

Washington (CNN)Tensions erupted in the Senate Tuesday as Democrats stalled several of President Donald Trump's Cabinet picks, frustrating Republicans who accused Democrats of playing politics to try to hurt Trump and make Senate Republicans look ineffective.

Party leaders squared off after a fast-paced and chaotic morning when Democrats on one committee abruptly boycotted a hearing where two top administration officials were expected to clear votes to advance to the floor. In another committee, Democrats forced a delay in voting the nominee for attorney general, admitting it was in retaliation for Trump's controversial executive orders this week on immigration.
Votes on the floor even appeared to get personal when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife to be transportation secretary.
Republicans fumed.
"None of this is going to lead to a different outcome. The Cabinet appointments are going to be approved. I think they look quite foolish," said McConnell, R-Kentucky, about the Democrats. "They are manufacturing issues on a daily basis to drag this process out."
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"Our Republican colleagues are trying to rush these through. You know, advise-and-consent doesn't mean ram the nominees through," said Schumer, D-New York. "These nominees are not what Donald Trump promised and not what represents American middle-class values. They are billionaires. They are bankers. They are laden with conflict of interest. Many of them have had very extreme views."
The heightened emotions were on full display just hours before Trump was to name a Supreme Court nominee to fill the long-vacant seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
The appointment could trigger a massive battle between the parties made rawer for Democrats because of the refusal of Republicans to confirm Judge Merrick Garland for the opening last year.
Democrats even rejected an invitation to the White House to hear Trump make his prime-time announcement in the East Room.
"I don't want to be a prop in this. I want to take this seriously," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, who indicated he was wary of the showmanship nature of the event.
Tempers flared early Monday after Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee abruptly refused to enter a hearing room and allow votes to take place for treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin and health and human services secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia.
"They are idiots," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the normally soft-spoken committee chairman said bluntly about the Democrats. "Anybody who would do something like that, it's a complete breach of rule, a complete breach of decorum, a complete breach of just getting along around here."
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But Democrats were equally upset by what they called misleading responses from Price about stock trades he made and from Mnuchin about foreclosures at a California bank he ran.
"This morning, the finance committee was scheduled to vote on two nominees who have misled the public and held back important information about their backgrounds. Until questions are answered, Democrats believe the committee should not move forward with either nomination," said Sen. Ron Wyden or Oregon, the committee's top Democrat.
The surprise decision to boycott the votes -- which prompted one GOP senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to suggest the sergeant-at-arms should round up the missing senators -- came at the same hour that that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee squared off over Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to be attorney general.
A votes on Sessions was expected but Democrats employed a rarely-used procedural tool to block the committee from meeting for more than two hours after the Senate came into session. The move infuriated Republicans who had already pushed back a vote on Sessions for a week at the insistence of Democrats.
A committee vote is now likely Wednesday.
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On the floor, Democrats are dragging out a final vote on Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state even though he easily cleared a procedural hurdle Monday and is headed toward confirmation. Since Democrats are insisting all available debate time is used, they are forcing Republicans to keep the Senate open late night this week so a final vote can occur Wednesday, according to GOP aides.
Some of Trump's picks did advance Tuesday. Education nominee Betsy DeVos was cleared by the Senate education committee, despite a move by Democrats to invalidate the vote after it happened. Energy nominee Rick Perry and Interior Department pick Ryan ZInke were voted out of the energy committee.
On the floor, Elaine Chao, McConnell's wife, was overwhelmingly confirmed to run the Transportation Department. But contributing to the lack of comity between the parties, Schumer was one of six Democrats to vote against the GOP leader's spouse.
The move rankled some Republicans and raised questions about the ability of Schumer and McConnell to get along.
An aide to McConnell told CNN that the GOP leader was surprised and not happy by this "shot across the bow."
Schumer said he voted against Chao because she hadn't publicly stated her position on Trump's controversial immigration executive order issued this week, tying the fight over the confirmations to the latest flashpoint coming out of the White House.
"She has not, so I voted against her, and I will vote against every nominee who does not," Schumer said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, described Schumer as typically a pragmatist on nominations but said he was being pulled to the left by the "Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren faction of the party."
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, had another explanation. He said Democrats are blocking nominations because they have a "mob mentality" now because they are frustrated and filled with emotion, similar to the way Republicans were when they shut down the government over Obamacare.