To start, it’s important to note again how extraordinarily rare it is for a cabinet nominee to fail a floor vote in the Senate; it’s only happened nine times in U.S. history and last happened in 1989. This is due to longstanding bipartisan precedent that Presidents be given “considerable deference in the selection of Cabinet members regardless of which political party is in power,” as Collins herself explained in an interview today. Sinking a cabinet nominee got even harder in the filibuster compromise of 2013, when it was agreed that cabinet appointments would not be subject to the filibuster, meaning a Cabinet nominee would only need votes from 50 Senators, plus the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote, to be confirmed. So from the start, if ANY of Trump’s nominees get voted down in a final Senate vote, it would be a BFD.
This makes it all the more extraordinary that, after receiving unprecedented constituent pressure to vote against DeVos, Susan Collins is now saying that she “may not vote for [DeVos’] confirmation when it goes before the full Senate.” What’s even more interesting is that Lisa Murkowski, arguably the only other moderate Republican in the Senate, has taken the same stance due to pressure from “thousands of Alaskans” calling and visiting her offices. Though they both did vote with their party in committee this morning to send DeVos to the full Senate for a vote (again due to precedent), the fact that they both did so while telegraphing they might vote no in the full Senate is a BIG deal. The Dem caucus is fully unified in opposition to DeVos, so if Collins and Murkowski vote no, it would only take one more Republican no vote to sink her. Maybe Dean Heller (R-NV), who’s up for a tough re-election in a swing state in 2018, or one of the other 7 Senators that recently showed some spine in making statements opposing Trump’s executive order, like Jeff Flake (R-AZ, also up in 2018), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), or Cory Gardner (R-CO).
In summary, DeVos is sinkable, but far from a sure thing. At this point, it seems quite clear that she is the most likely Cabinet nominee to fail, and if we’re going to break precedent by sinking any of these nominees, we’ll need to start with the easiest one. So the DeVos action item stays.
But what about all the other shockingly horrible nominees working their way through the system, you ask?
According to the two guidelines we set before about which issues to fight for with Collins, all cabinet nominees satisfy the requirement that she have control over it, since she will ultimately vote on all of them (unless withdrawn or killed in committee) on the Senate floor. However, the second requirement of believing she can be persuaded rules out a couple who are fast approaching a Senate vote:
- Rex Tillerson for State, whom Angus King and a three Dems have already neglected to block. If Dems aren’t unified against, Collins is not going to stick her neck out against her party and against precedent.
- Jeff Sessions for DOJ, based on the fact that she went out of her way to endorse and introduce him at his hearing as a trusted colleague and classmate, despite their many differences on policy. On Sessions, she stuck her neck out far to the right, and we can’t expect her to reverse herself and stick her neck out in the other direction.
One who does fit the criteria is Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, who is expected to be voted out of committee tomorrow. The Dem caucus seems unified against Pruitt (except possibly for Joe Manchin of West Virginia), and though she doesn’t sit on the committee that manages his hearing, Collins has started to express fairly strong reservations about him:
“I am concerned, based on the meeting I had with Scott Pruitt, about the number of times he has sued the very agency that he has now been tapped to lead,”
If you had to pick a cabinet nominee with the greatest potential to inflict damage on the nation and the world, you could make a good case for Scott Pruitt. Unlike DeVos, he seems extremely knowledgeable of the organization he’d be heading. But like her, he seems to have a personal agenda against the established mission of the organization, having sued the EPA 13 times as Oklahoma’s Attorney General. Most critically, given how much the Obama administration relied on EPA regulation to reach the commitments needed for the Paris agreement on climate change, the damage Pruitt could do to the U.S. and the world’s efforts to combat climate change is severe.
In the case of Pruitt, there is very good reason to believe Collins may oppose him even if it’s clear he will still have the votes to be confirmed, since it could help build her carefully maintained reputation for being a pro-environment Republican. She may even choose to do the same on DeVos, and may in fact be more comfortable making a vote against her party if she knows her vote won’t change the outcome. I’m told she has built quite a track record in the past of doing just that on legislation, getting credit for voting against a Republican bill, while still letting it pass by not filibustering. The difference is that this time, we’ll all be watching, and calling her out when necessary.
So let’s try out our first combo action item* and call for a no vote on both DeVos and Pruitt. Calls from Mainers are definitely starting to have an impact on Collins, so this is no time to get discouraged or distracted!
Thanks for all you do,
*Someone in the Caribou office told me this morning that they don’t mind constituents mentioning multiple issues in a single call, and assured me that each issue would be logged separately.