WASHINGTON – Top Senate Democrats are trying to put the brakes on President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks, insisting on extensive financial information on some of the wealthiest Americans before moving forward on nominations.
Frustrated by the slow response of billionaires and multimillionaires to their request, 16 Democrats delivered an ultimatum Thursday, saying no committee should vote on a nominee until the individual has cleared an FBI background check, provided a financial report and an ethics agreement with the Office of Government Ethics, and responded to "reasonable requests for additional information" such as tax returns.
"The United States Senate has a rich, bipartisan tradition of vetting nominees to the president's Cabinet," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Democratic leader. "We hope to continue that tradition with our colleagues in the Republican majority because the American people are entitled to a fair and open consideration process for all executive nominations."
Republicans controlling the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, want to make quick work of Cabinet confirmations once Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
Democrats have limited options to block nominees outright because they changed filibuster rules when they controlled the Senate in 2013, and Cabinet nominees can win approval on a simple majority vote. Republicans will hold a 52-48 advantage next year. However, Democrats could drag out the process in committee or force longer Senate debates than usual.
"President-elect Trump refused to release his tax returns and will start his presidency consumed by questions about how he could be using his position to enrich himself and his family, but that doesn't mean that his nominees should be held to the same low standards," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Transition officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Trump's choice of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state touched off an escalating fight Thursday between the top Republican and Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, the panel that will vote on the multimillionaire's nomination.
Sen. Bob Corker, the committee chairman, complained that Democrats are asking for disclosures not demanded of previous nominees, including wealthy people like Secretary of State John Kerry.
"This is being driven by the election," Corker, R-Tenn., told The Associated Press. "The fact that Donald Trump did not provide tax returns is driving all that is being done."
In fact, Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, had to file an annual financial disclosure report, and he released 20 years of tax returns when he ran for president in 2004.
In a letter to colleagues, Sen. Ben Cardin, the panel's top Democrat, said he asked the Trump transition team for three years' worth of tax returns because Tillerson was "actively engaged with many foreign governments" at Exxon Mobil. Cardin said Tillerson "promised to provide" the tax information in response to a question on a standard questionnaire that all nominees submit prior to appearing before the committee.
"Senator Corker and I have a disagreement about the need to review the nominee's tax returns," Cardin said. "I think it is an important part of vetting this candidate because he has never made public disclosures of this type, as he has worked at Exxon Mobil for his entire career and has never been in public service."
Corker quickly responded with a statement saying the GOP-controlled committee never officially asked for the tax returns and insisted that Tillerson was ahead of schedule in providing information to the committee.
The issue has the potential to produce a major political battle in the opening days of Trump's administration. In addition to Tillerson, Trump has tapped Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive, for treasury secretary, and Betsy DeVos, daughter of the Amway co-founder, for education secretary.
Corker said it is not the practice of his committee to request tax information.
"We're going to operate exactly the same way that we've been operating the 10 years that I've been on the committee," Corker added. "We've never asked for tax returns. It's not what we do on our committee."
Corker said the committee's own financial disclosure forms "are very expansive. They actually provide more information than a tax return does."