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Story highlights

Liberals like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken are grilling Trump cabinet nominees

They are using the hearings to position themselves as Democratic Party leaders

(CNN) —  

Hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees are serving as auditions for Democrats who want to be the party’s next liberal leader. Or in the mix to be the 2020 presidential nominee.

As President Barack Obama leaves office and Hillary Clinton fades from the political scene, experience as a national party leader is what Democrats now lack – and confirmation hearings for Trump’s picks have served as a test run for the party’s top voices.

Trump picks like Betsy DeVos (education), Steven Mnuchin (treasury), Scott Pruitt (EPA), Tom Price (HHS) and Jeff Sessions (attorney general), have been facing a line of liberals waiting to make their name on the national stage.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – two national leaders familiar to liberals – have used the hearings to portray Trump’s nominees as unqualified and determined to undercut the core tasks of the agencies they’ve been chosen to lead. Minnesota’s Al Franken, Washington’s Patty Murray and New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan have attracted Democrats’ attention with key moments of their own.

And New Jersey’s Cory Booker became the first senator to ever testify against another senator when he opposed Alabama Sen. Sessions’ nomination for attorney general in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Franken grilled Ryan Zinke, Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, on whether he believes climate change requires immediate action.

“I want to be honest with you,” Zinke said. “We both agree that the climate’s changing. We both agree that man is an influence.”

“A major influence,” Franken responded.

“I’m not an expert in this field,” Zinke said.

“To me that’s a cop-out,” Franken said. “I’m not a doctor but I have to make health care decisions.”

Sanders cast DeVos’ selection for education secretary as motivated purely by her status as a top GOP donor.

“Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be here today?” he asked.

That moment, said Neil Sroka, the spokesman for Democracy for America, the liberal group founded by Howard Dean, “is really rapidly making the rounds among progressive activists online today” because it “hits the Trump administration in its solar plexus.”

Warren targeted DeVos’s experience.

“The secretary of education is essentially responsible running a $1 trillion bank,” Warren told DeVos Tuesday night. “Do you have any direct experience in running a bank?”

“Senator, I do not,” DeVos answered – acknowledging she’d never overseen a trillion-dollar loan program, nor, as Warren pressed, a billion-dollar loan program.

“OK,” Warren said. “So no experience.”

The tough questions are meant to excite the base for the tough fight ahead against Trump, Sroka said.

“A lot of the questioning you’ve seen from Warren and Sanders in particular have kind of electrified Democrats and shown exactly what it means to be someone who’s going to stand up to a Trump administration and ask the questions that need to be asked,” Sroka said.

Women taking the lead

“Throughout these confirmation hearings, it has been Democratic women leading the charge against Donald Trump’s nominees and the dangerous policies they support,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women.

Murray hit Tom Price, Trump’s pick for health and human services secretary, Wednesday.

Murray, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership team, grilled Price on whether he purchased stocks in a company called Innate Immunotherapeutics after receiving a “stock tip” from a fellow member of the House, GOP Rep. Chris Collins.

“Do you believe it is appropriate for a senior member of Congress, actively involved in policymaking in the health center, to repeatedly personally invest in a drug company that could benefit from those actions?” Murray asked.

“That’s not what happened,” said Price, who insisted repeatedly that he never received information that could be considered stock tip.

Murray shot back: “I believe it’s inappropriate. And we need answers to this.”

Murray also forced DeVos to address Trump’s bragging about sexually assaulting women on the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape. Asked if the behavior Trump described on the tape amounts to sexual assault, DeVos told Murray, “Yes.”

The biggest star turn for a Democrat so far, though, likely came from New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan – who is now two weeks into the job.

After DeVos said a civil rights law for students with disabilities should be implemented by states, Hassan shot back, “That’s a federal civil rights law.”

“So do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?” she asked.

“Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play,” DeVos replied.

Hassan said: “So were you unaware what I just asked you about the (law)? That it was a federal law?”

“I may have confused it,” DeVos admitted.