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Cabinet Nominees Will Face Scrutiny On Climate And Education Policy This Week

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the EPA, earlier this month.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the EPA, earlier this month.

The final few days before President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office will be filled with a flurry of congressional activity, as the Senate holds confirmation hearings for eight more of his Cabinet nominees.

Most are expected to be fairly routine, but a few could be hot-button affairs, including hearings for Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt, Trump's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to confirm several new Cabinet members shortly after Trump is sworn in as president at noon on Friday.

"I'm hopeful that we'll get up to six or seven, particularly national security team, in place on day one," McConnell told reporters last week after meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York.

Last week's hearings included several national security picks, including Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, who sailed through his hearing and received a congressional waiver required due to his recent military service; Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, who faced very tough questions — particularly from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio; Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, who had to defend his record on race against opposition from most Democrats and civil rights groups; Mike Pompeo for CIA director; and John Kelly, who was nominated to run the Department of Homeland Security.

This week's hearings are for more positions that oversee domestic policy, and discussions are likely to focus on issues like climate change and the role of public education.

Here's a rundown of what's coming up:

Tuesday confirmation hearings: DeVos and Zinke

Betsy DeVos will have her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) committee at 5 p.m. It was postponed from last week amid concerns of incomplete financial disclosures and ethics review. The HELP committee, however, said the delay was "at the request of Senate leadership to accommodate Senate schedule." On Friday evening, the Washington Postreported that DeVos had left a $150,000 anti-union political donation off of her disclosure forms.

DeVos, a billionaire GOP donor who once chaired the Michigan Republican Party, is a vocal supporter of school choice and vouchers, but doesn't have much experience in public education. She has gotten the support of many Republicans, including some who were very critical of Trump during the campaign, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Earlier on Tuesday, at 10 a.m., Interior Secretary-designate Ryan Zinke will have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Montana Republican congressman was just sworn in to his second term and was a somewhat surprising choice for Trump, especially since he was considered to be a top GOP recruit to challenge Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for reelection in 2018. He's a former Navy SEAL commander who served in Iraq and was awarded two Bronze Stars.

Zinke is a vocal defender of public access to federal lands, and even resigned his position as a delegate to the Republican National Committee after the party platform included support for transferring federal public lands to the states. However, environmentalists have been critical of his nomination; he's a supporter of coal, oil and gas exploration, and has backed building the Keystone XL pipeline.

Wednesday confirmation hearings: Haley, Price, Pruitt and Ross

The middle of the week features four simultaneous confirmation hearings, all beginning at 10 a.m.

The hearing for U.N. Ambassador nominee Nikki Haley before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will round out the testimonies of major members of Trump's foreign policy team. The South Carolina governor was no fan of Trump during the primary, even directly criticizing him during her State of the Union response last year. That alone made her a surprise choice for the position, in addition to the fact that she has little foreign policy experience, so expect Democrats to grill her on international issues. She's the daughter of Indian immigrants and was the first woman and the first minority to lead the Palmetto State.

Georgia Rep. Tom Price will also testify before the HELP Committee on his nomination to be the Health and Human Services secretary, a position that's sure to get more scrutiny as Republicans have begun pushing to repeal and replace Obamacare. Price is an orthopedic surgeon, who has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act and proposed his own alternative. Even though he has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the New York Times reported that his nomination has, nonetheless, left many of the country's medical professionals divided. NPR's Scott Horsley reported that Price is under plenty of scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest as he seeks to overhaul the country's healthcare system, but has recently taken steps to inoculate himself from many of his financial interests.

The confirmation for Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is sure to attract plenty of attention as he testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He's been a leading critic of the very agency he's seeking to lead. Pruitt has been a leading opponent of President Obama's environmental and climate regulations, according to NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce:

His official biography calls him "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda." He has repeatedly challenged the agency's rules in court, and he has even sued the EPA for an allegedly cozy "sue and settle" relationship with environmentalists. One profile noted that Pruitt would sue the federal government "every chance he can get."

Pruitt is also a climate change skeptic, writing in National Review last year that: "Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime."

Commerce Secretary-nominee Wilbur Ross will also have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which was also postponed from last week due to ethics paperwork delays. He's a billionaire investor and turnaround specialist. And like Trump, Ross has been a vocal opponent of free trade and supports renegotiating current trade deals.

Thursday confirmation hearings: Mnuchin and Ydstie

Treasury Secretary-nominee Steven Mnuchin will testify before the Senate Finance Committee at 10 a.m. on Thursday. The wealthy hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs executive was Trump's chief fundraiser during the campaign. Mnuchin will face plenty of questions about his own financial interests and how he would plan to mitigate conflicts of interest if confirmed; he's promised to divest from as many as 43 companies and funds if confirmed, as well as step down from several corporate boards. However, the New York Times reported he won't step down as an unpaid adviser for "Steven T. Mnuchin Inc.," which manages his own investments.

NPR's John Ydstie also reports that Mnuchin's time as chairman and CEO of the California bank IndyMac, which has "been called a foreclosure machine," is also sure to be a major focus of the hearings. Here's what Ydstie reported in November:

Mnuchin and his partners bought IndyMac on the condition that the FDIC agree to pay future losses above a certain threshold. They renamed the bank OneWest Bank and, after running it for six years, they sold it last year for a profit, estimated at close to $1.5 billion.

OneWest foreclosed on more than 36,000 homeowners under Mnuchin's tenure.

Rick Perry will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at 10 a.m. as well on his nomination to be Secretary of Energy. The former Texas governor also briefly ran for president before withdrawing early on in the 2016 campaign; he, too, was initially critical of Trump before endorsing him last May. The Austin American-Statesman reports that Perry has cut ties with several oil and gas companies ahead of his hearing.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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