Democrats see opening in Trump’s stumble on travel ban, move to block Cabinet votes

From left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker and other Democratic lawmakers join protesters in Washington on Monday night.
From left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker and other Democratic lawmakers join protesters in Washington on Monday night.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Seizing on President Trump’s early missteps and the wave of protests his executive actions have triggered, Democrats are feeling more emboldened to confront the new administration head-on.

Democrats are the still minority in Congress, lacking the votes to stop Trump’s agenda. But they have the ability to jam it up. And Tuesday they did just that.

First they temporarily stopped the clock on Rex Tillerson’s nomination for secretary of State, arguing that his views on Trump’s refugee and travel ban must be made public before lawmakers can make a decision.


Next they staged a walkout at the Senate Finance Committee, preventing votes on Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as Health and Human Services secretary and Steve Mnuchin as secretary of Treasury.

And they forced a delay of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general after Trump abruptly fired acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates for refusing to enforce his travel ban.

Earlier, they kept the Senate in session until midnight Monday and protested on the steps of the Supreme Court, ahead of what is now likely to be a rigorous confirmation battle over Trump’s pick to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat.

“People across our country are looking at what President Trump is doing, they are appalled, and they are looking to us in Congress to fight back,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat, whose office received so many voicemails of concern – 10,000 – it shut down the system. “Democrats are fighting back with every tool we have.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said he would oppose every one of Trump’s nominees until they fully answered new questions raised by Trump’s executive actions.

Democrats were initially divided in the aftermath of Trump’s stunning electoral victory over whether to work with the new president or battle him. Many remain crushed over Democratic losses and confused by the nationalist and populist enthusiasm for Trump that siphoned off some of their traditional voters.

But Democrats quickly found an answer in the protests erupting across the country as Americans poured into the streets after Trump’s inauguration, and again last weekend at airports in response to the travel order.

“President Obama kind of set the tone when he left saying to everybody, ‘If you want to make an impact, stay engaged,’” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). “The public’s very engaged.”

Even some Democratic organizers were pleasantly surprised by the scale of the impromptu rallies of liberals, carrying homemade signs and showing up to protest the president’s actions. To some, the uprisings have been reminiscent of the tea party protests that sprung up early in Obama’s presidency.

Senate leaders say that their reasons for stalling Trump’s Cabinet choices are based on policy, not politics. They note that the Senate easily confirmed Elaine Chao as the new Transportation secretary Tuesday while committees advanced Rick Perry as Energy secretary and Ryan Zinke as head of Interior.

But some of Trump’s nominees remain controversial because they have not completed the necessary paperwork, including ethics disclosures, or they face fresh questions as new information emerges.

Democrats have said Mnuchin, a wealthy Wall Street executive, misled the committee in his response to a written question about foreclosures at Pasadena’s OneWest Bank while he ran it from 2009 to 2015.

They have also been increasingly critical of Price’s extensive trading in healthcare stocks while he has been in Congress, in some cases while he has pushed legislation that would benefit his portfolio.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) denounced the Democratic walkout Tuesday as he sat with only Republicans on the dais.

“They ought to be embarrassed. It’s the most pathetic treatment I’ve seen in my 40 years in the United States Senate,” Hatch said. “I think they should stop posturing and acting like idiots.”

But even Democrats who did not participate in the boycott Tuesday said their colleagues had the right to protest for more information.

“People are concerned,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who communicated with protesters via Skype at his Charleston office.

For Democrats the unresolved tension between the party’s liberal base and its more moderate wing remains a potentially troublesome political divide. The rise of the tea party, for example, may have reenergized the GOP, but it also fueled deep divisions that continue today.

Liberal favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) encountered pushback from liberal activists after she voted to advance Ben Carson’s nomination for Housing and Urban Development secretary.

“There are various gradations within the opposition, and some [advocate] scorched-earth,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant leader. “Some of my folks in the base don’t want me to vote yes for anyone. But I’m not going to take that position.”

After Democrats gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court on Monday night in an emotional protest over the refugee and travel ban, Trump tweeted dismissively about them. He made fun of the trouble they had getting the microphones to work.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) cautioned his colleagues against becoming too polarized as they confront Trump, lest they meet the same fate of Republicans whose party became overrun by far-right forces and turned Trump into the “first tea party president.”

“The radical nature of this government is radicalizing Democrats, and that’s going to pose a real challenge to the Democratic Party,” Schiff said. “The more radical the administration is, the more radicalized our base becomes, which just feeds the [arch-conservative] Breitbart crowd, and who knows where that ends.”


Times staff writers Jim Puzzanghera and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.


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