No style points in GOP push to break logjam on Cabinet picks

It doesn’t matter if you go to medical school and graduate last in your class. You still earn the initials “M.D.” after your name.

In figure skating, likewise, for years it didn’t much matter whether a skater rocked a Salchow and a triple-toe loop. They could fall behind if judges didn’t find their “compulsory figures” – where skaters actually carved numerals in the ice – crisp and accurate.

And when it comes to confirming members of President Trump’s Cabinet and other key officials, there certainly are no style points. All that matters is getting through.

The Senate just confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin 100-0. Days earlier, now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos squeaked through after Vice President Pence broke a 50-50 tie, the first time in history on a Cabinet member vote. Both are now Cabinet secretaries.

And things are only tightening up, as majority Republicans try to push through President Trump’s remaining nominees after weeks of delay. The Senate confirmed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin 53-47. There were 52-47 votes to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary.

There’s another tight vote Thursday morning to confirm Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as budget director. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tangled with Mulvaney at his confirmation hearing over the congressman’s views on Pentagon spending and likely will vote nay.

The Senate’s also planning an early Friday afternoon vote to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, plans to vote no on Pruitt’s nomination.

There’s little turning radius here, with Republicans holding a narrow 52-48 majority. Pruitt faces a possible 51-49 vote, just like on Mulvaney. Again, they don’t award style points. But it’s unclear precisely who may be around to vote. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain planned to lead a congressional delegation of lawmakers to the annual Munich Security Conference tonight. McCain tells Fox News he’ll cut town early on his own – probably missing the Pruitt vote on Friday. It’s unclear if any other senators may bail. When asked if Pence’s services may be required due to absent senators, a senior Senate GOP leadership source replied flatly “we don’t lose votes.”

Senate Republicans have to get it right on each roll call. They can’t just stop and start all over again like Adele at the Grammys.

Senate Democrats successfully dragged out the confirmation process for multiple nominees for weeks. Senate Republicans have repeatedly executed a parliamentary maneuver to break a Democratic filibuster on most nominees. Senate rules allow opponents of a nominee up to 30 hours of debate once the body halts the filibuster.

On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed cloture (an effort to end the filibuster) on the nominations of Mulvaney, Pruitt and four others. Those included the selections of Wilbur Ross to serve as Commerce secretary; Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to become Interior secretary; Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Energy secretary. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted senators would confirm Mulvaney and Pruitt before the Senate broke for the first major congressional recess of the year. But Cornyn hoped Republicans could forge a deal with Democrats to also confirm Ross and maybe a few others.

Senate Democratic sources doubted an agreement was in the works. But never underestimate the power of the scent of jet fumes.

Things often seem intractable in the Senate just before a big recess. Then, magically, everything comes together. Senators vote and burst out of the building faster than Russian fighters buzzing U.S. destroyers in the Black Sea.

The Democrats’ tactic to protract the confirmation process helped them collect one trophy, though. Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder withdrew from consideration Wednesday. But in the end, Republicans killed Puzder’s nomination.

Fox News is told there were as many as 12 Republican senators who harbored reservations about Puzder. It quickly became apparent that Puzder couldn’t win confirmation with such tight margins in the Senate.

It’s not uncommon for new administrations to suffer a few Cabinet setbacks. President George W. Bush nominated Linda Chavez to be Labor secretary in 2001. She stepped aside over the issue of paying an undocumented immigrant to perform household chores.

President Clinton burned through two attorney general nominations in 1993 before settling on Janet Reno. Both of Clinton’s picks, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, also had household worker employment problems.

Without a big majority in the Senate and multiple close votes, it may have been inevitable that one of Trump’s nominees would implode. It was just the perfect storm for Puzder.

And so the Senate is poised to confirm Mulvaney and Pruitt in the next day or two. The confirmation votes may be close. But you don’t get style points in the Senate.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.