Price, Puzder to face extreme vetting by Democrats

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(Bloomberg) – A marathon of Senate confirmation hearings starting this week will give Democrats the chance to put Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees on trial even though they have little chance of actually blocking any of them.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is in talks with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the full scope of the hearings -- demanding, among other things, full paperwork in advance and at least two days of hearings on eight of the most troublesome nominees for Democrats.

A ninth candidate -- billionaire Wilbur Ross, picked to be secretary of Commerce -- will also face intense scrutiny about potential conflicts of interest but isn’t on Schumer’s list.

All of Trump’s picks are expected to win confirmation, barring unexpected revelations or major gaffes. Democrats can’t block nominees on their own, but Schumer said they still have procedural leverage.

"They can delay the process, they can’t stop it," said John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican.

The Senate committees’ scheduling of hearings for nominees who haven’t completed an ethics review required by federal law is a "great concern," Walter Shaub, head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in a letter released Saturday.

"It has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings," Shaub wrote.

Back in 2009, McConnell sent a letter to Minority Leader Harry Reid insisting on standards for nominations, including a review from the OGE prior to hearings.

One of Democrats’ top goals is to highlight splits between the nominees and Trump’s populist message and campaign rhetoric. For benefits and HR professionals, here are the picks that Schumer’s office cited as the most troublesome for Democrats:

Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services

Price, the House Budget Committee chairman until his nomination, will face questions from Democrats on his trades in healthcare stocks while handling legislation that could affect the shares. Watchdog group Public Citizen says he made 630 trades in about 40 companies starting in 2012 while he led the Budget Committee and the Ways and Means Committee’s health panel.

Price is a leading opponent of the Affordable Care Act and will be questioned about his plan to repeal and replace it. His proposal in May 2015 focused on providing tax credits to buy insurance, expanding health savings accounts and revising medical malpractice laws. Price is also an abortion opponent and will likely be asked about his votes to cut federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Andy Puzder, Secretary of Labor

Puzder, chief executive of the company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains, opposes the Obama administration rule that would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, and its proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Democrats are expected to cast findings of wage violations at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, and the disparity in pay for Puzder and his employees, as emblematic of a Trump presidency that will favor wealthy elites despite his populist message.

Some Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations are shifting to touch-screen kiosks, requiring fewer employees behind the counter, a move Puzder said was prompted by what he called ill-advised government policies and taxes.

In a July opinion article, Puzder said legal immigration is an asset to the U.S. and that it would be "unworkable" to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants. But he said Trump’s proposal to build a border wall was reasonable because the public demands action.

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General

Sessions and Schumer are biking buddies in the Senate gym, and it would be exceedingly rare for a sitting senator not to ultimately get confirmed, despite Sessions’ being rejected for a judgeship in the 1980s over racial comments.

In addition to having to address his race-related comments from decades ago, the four-term senator will face questions on his opposition to legal status for undocumented immigrants, especially those brought here as children and granted work permits by President Barack Obama. He can expect to be grilled on the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of which was struck down by the Supreme Court as outdated; Congress hasn’t updated that section. He also has been targeted by some marijuana advocates who worry he will enforce the federal prohibition in states that have legalized the drug.

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