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Trump's Domestic Agenda Will be in This Week's Senate Spotlight

Domestic policy takes center stage in the coming days, with Trump’s nominees for Education, Treasury and HHS Secretary and other posts scheduled for hearings.
Wilbur Ross, Steven Mnuchin
Wilbur Ross, Steven MnuchinNBC News

Donald Trump’s domestic agenda will be under scrutiny even before he's inaugurated as president later this week as eight of his cabinet nominees visit Capitol Hill for their scheduled confirmation hearings.

While last week’s hearings focused on foreign policy and national security, domestic policy takes center stage in the coming days, with Trump’s nominees for Education, Treasury and HHS Secretary and other posts scheduled for hearings.

Republicans are pushing to get Trump's cabinet approved as quickly as possible after he takes office. Democrats see the upcoming hearings as an opportunity to try to question Trump’s credibility as a populist crusader by pointing to his nominees’ vast wealth and financial ties to the industries they’ll oversee.

Here’s the rundown of what’s on tap this week in the senate confirmation hearings:


Betsy DeVos — Secretary of Education: DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and conservative donor, will likely face fierce grilling on Tuesday in what should be one of the most contentious hearings of the week.

Democrats are certain to take aim at DeVos’s conservative views on education: DeVos chaired the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children and has contributed millions to efforts to advance charter schools and school vouchers nationwide. She’ll likely be asked to answer for what critics say is a sub-par charter school system with lax oversight in Michigan that DeVos helped develop through donations to pro-charter groups and her own advocacy.

Democrats are also expected to focus on DeVos’ wealth, which is so large that it’s taken the Office of Government Ethics some time to pore through.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has already previewed her plans to tear into DeVos with a 16-page open letter that takes aim at her lack of experience in public education and her millions in donations to GOP lawmakers and causes.

DeVos may also face questions from Republican members of the committee over her views on Common Core, the education standards that conservatives revile. While DeVos issued a statement last month declaring she was “not a supporter — period” of the standards, her service on the board of a pro-Common Core group led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has raised some questions for conservative critics.

Rep. Ryan Zinke — Secretary of the Interior: The two-term House member's hearing isn’t expected to produce many fireworks. The relatively uncontroversial pick could face heat from more progressive members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee because of his pro-oil and gas record — he’s opposed government environmental regulations on energy production in the past. He has a 3 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Zinke has supported a sportsman's view of conservation, speaking out in favor of access to federal lands and opposing the transfer of federal land ownership to the states — positions that may put him at odds with the GOP but brings him inline with Trump, whose sons are avid hunters.


Rep. Tom Price — Secretary of Health and Human Services: Wednesday’s marquee confirmation hearing will be more than simply an examination of Trump’s pick to lead HHS — it’s expected to be another skirmish in Democrats’ public relations battle to defend the Affordable Care Act from GOP efforts to repeal it.

Price, a Georgia Republican and orthopedic surgeon, is the author of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare and would oversee any such plan Republicans manage to pass. Trump himself has said he plans to unveil his alternative — which he’s promised will provide “insurance for everybody” that’s “much less expensive" — after Price is confirmed, though that could take weeks, as the Finance Committee must also hold hearings on his nomination.

Price has also been in favor of privatizing Medicare and has recently come under scrutiny over a Wall Street Journal report revealing that, over the past four years, he traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies while working on legislation that could have affected those companies’ profits.

The committee includes liberal firebrands Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as former vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, all of whom appeared at Democratic rallies this weekend pledging to fight GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. They’re certain to use the closely-watched hearing to continue that campaign.

Wilbur Ross — Secretary of Commerce: While Ross is another billionaire cabinet pick whose wealth is so vast that his hearing was rescheduled to allow OGE more time to evaluate his financials, he’s a relatively uncontroversial pick and looks headed for an easy confirmation.

Ross made billions restructuring failed companies and was known particularly for his work in the coal and steel companies — two industries that Trump promised to revive on the campaign trail. But that work could draw scrutiny during his hearing, as Ross was implicated in the 2006 Sago mine disaster in Sago, West Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of a dozen miners due in part to overlooked safety concerns. The mine was owned by a subsidiary of one of Ross' companies.

President-elect Donald Trump gestures at investor Wilbur Ross (R) at the clubhouse of Trump International Golf Club, in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, on Nov. 20. PETER FOLEY / EPA

Democrats may use his hearing to question Trump’s commitment to working Americans and try to undermine his populist appeal by noting Ross is yet another billionaire named to the president-elect’s cabinet. But he’s a former Democratic donor who’s won praise from union workers, and so is expected to easily pass out of committee.

Oklahoma Attorney Gen. Scott Pruitt — EPA Administrator: Pruitt’s hearing is another where Senate Democrats are hoping to draw blood. He’s a noted climate change skeptic who’s sued the EPA fourteen times over various environmental regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. And he’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry — companies that stand to benefit if those lawsuits were decided in his favor.

Democrats will seek to portray him as beholden to the oil and gas industry to such an extent that it could compromise his ability to lead the EPA in a fair and balanced manner. They’re certain to mention an embarrassing New York Times report that revealed Pruitt sent a letter to federal regulators that was ghost-written by an energy company executive.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, a leading Democratic voice on environmental issues, as well as progressive favorites Sanders and Cory Booker, are expected to lay into Pruitt. But despite the likelihood of a contentious hearing, Pruitt is still expected to win confirmation and the hurdle for Democrats to defeat his nomination got even higher when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin offered his support for the nominee.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — Ambassador to the United Nations: Haley is generally well-liked and expected to win confirmation to the post. But a rocky hearing for Trump’s Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, last week, as well as Trump’s persistent breaks with foreign policy orthodoxy in an interview with foreign media this weekend, put her in a tough spot for her confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Democrats have hinted that because of Tillerson’s reluctance to weigh in on human rights issues, commit to further sanctions against Russia and call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, Haley’s answers on those issues will be key. Hers could be another hearing where Trump’s cabinet nominee breaks with the president-elect on key policy issues.

Senators from both parties will be watching her answers on how to respond to a recent U.N. Security Council vote to condemn Israeli settlements. A number of pro-Israel lawmakers have introduced a bill that would cut off funding to the U.N. unless the resolution is reversed, so Haley will have to balance her support for Israel with a defense of the office she’s about to run.


Steven Mnuchin — Secretary of the Treasury: Democrats see Mnuchin’s hearing as a key opportunity to tear into Trump’s populist appeal and believe the nominee’s political and media inexperience will help them land some damaging punches on Thursday.

They point to his 17 years at Goldman Sachs, where he rose to partner, as well as his time leading OneWest, a bank that foreclosed on thousands of homeowners in the wake of the financial crisis, as evidence Mnuchin will favor policies that benefit the financial industry to the detriment of average Americans. A memo from prosecutors in the California attorney general’s office alleges OneWest engaged in “widespread misconduct” that effectively helped speed up foreclosures to the benefit of the bank

Steven Mnuchin arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 30.ANDREW GOMBERT / EPA

Progressive groups and unions have already spoken out against the pick, with some planning to launch paid advertising and advocacy campaigns against him. Senate Democrats set up a website calling Mnuchin the “Foreclosure King” that aims to collect the stories of those personally impacted by OneWest’s practices, and are pushing to allow some of those individuals to testify at his hearing Wednesday.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — Secretary of Energy: Perry’s pick to head up the agency he infamously forgot he’d eliminate in his infamous “oops” moment during the 2008 Republican primary drew ridicule from Trump critics. His financial ties to the oil and gas industry and efforts to expand oil and gas production during his time as governor of Texas are certain to draw pointed questions from Democrats, though he won plaudits from some environmentalists for also promoting renewable energy production as governor of Texas.

But Trump’s stance on nuclear weapons will also be a big focus of his confirmation hearing, as a majority of the Department of Energy’s budget goes towards maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons systems and handling nuclear waste. Trump recently told the Times of London he wants the nuclear arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia "reduced very substantially” — a seeming reversal from a December tweet in which Trump declared that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Perry could also be asked to weigh in on the Iran nuclear deal. Outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz played a central role in negotiating the agreement, and Perry and Trump both said during their campaigns they’d throw it out.