GOP blows up Senate rules to advance Steve Mnuchin, Tom Price despite Democrats' boycott over "inaccurate" testimony

Republicans rammed through two of President Trump's most controversial Cabinet nominees without one Democratic vote

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 1, 2017 6:00PM (EST)

 (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Senate Republicans blew up the chamber's rules to appease Donald Trump, and are now rushing to blame Democrats for the major breach. But according to Senate Democrats, President Trump's Cabinet nominees are the ones at fault after delivering deceptive testimony.

The GOP was quick to circumvent a procedural boycott by their Democratic colleagues on Wednesday in order to advance two of Donald Trump's most controversial Cabinet nominees without the vote of a single Democrat.

By a 14-0 vote, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee forced through the confirmations of Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Steve Mnuchin for Secretary of Treasury on Wednesday, upending standard committee rules to get around a Democratic boycott.

Not a single Democratic senator on the committee showed up for the votes on Mnuchin or Price on Tuesday, boycotting because of what they considered to be unanswered questions regarding Mnuchin's and Price's business dealings. When not a single Democrat showed up, the vote could not proceed, because of a longstanding rule requiring at least one member from the minority party be present. 

Republicans conducted a similar walkout during a 2013 confirmation for former president Barack Obama's EPA nominee Gina McCarthy.

On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did away with the rule, pushing both of Trump's nominees closer to a full Senate vote. It's a move that even Hatch said was “unprecedented.”

“They, on their own accord, refused to participate in the exercise,” Hatch said of his Democratic colleagues after the vote. "They have nobody to blame but themselves."

The Democratic members of the committee explained their boycott in a Wednesday letter to Hatch and said that they would not vote on the nominees until Mnuchin and Price answered certain questions. During their hearings, both Mnuchin and Price faced tough questions from lawmakers over their previous business dealings and now Democrats claim that some of the nominees' answers were "inaccurate."

Mnchuin and Price “misled the public and held back important information about their backgrounds,” according to Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

"We're not going to this committee meeting today because we want the committee to regroup, get the information, have these two nominees come back in front of the committee, clarify what they lied about — I would hope they would apologize about that — and then give us all the information we need for our states," Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Price — picked by Trump for his strident opposition to the Affordable Care Act — worked with Rep. Chris Collins, a member of the Trump transition team, to receive what Collins called a "friends-and-family" deal on stock shares in an Australian biomedical company:

Rep. Tom Price got a privileged offer to buy a biomedical stock at a discount, the company’s officials said, contrary to his congressional testimony this month.

The Georgia Republican tapped by President Donald Trump to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services testified in his Senate confirmation hearings on Jan. 18 and 24 that the discounted shares he bought in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd. , an Australian medical biotechnology company, “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”

In fact, the cabinet nominee was one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors who were invited last year to buy discounted shares of the company—an opportunity that, for Mr. Price, arose from an invitation from a company director and fellow congressmen.

Price, however, told the committee that the investment into the Australian company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, was available to all investors.

Stocks in the company later soared after Price secured legislation that would help push through one of their multiple sclerosis drugs.

“I asked Congressman Price directly if he got an exclusive discount on stock in an Australian biomedical firm, and he said no,” Sen. Wyden said Tuesday. “From the committee’s investigation to company documents to the company officials’ own words, the evidence tells a different story. It looks more and more like Congressman Price got special access to a special deal.”

Democrats say they have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Price violated insider trading laws and ethics rules.

The senators also said that Mnuchin has not sufficiently answered questions about foreclosures carried out by OneWest Bank, where he served as CEO from 2009 to 2015. The Columbus Dispatch reported on Sunday that Mnuchin may have been "untruthful" about the process the bank used for signing off on foreclosures.

On two occasions in written responses, Mnuchin claimed that OneWest never engaged in robo-signing, the illegal practice whereby low-level employees perjure themselves by signing foreclosure documents to speed foreclosures of homeowners.

"OneWest Bank did not robo-sign documents," Mnuchin replied in a letter to the Democrats on the committee.

"And," he added, "as the only bank to successfully complete the Independent Foreclosure Review required by federal banking regulators to investigate allegations of 'robo-signing,' I am proud of our institution's extremely low error rate."

An employee of OneWest, however, admitted to robo-signing in a 2009 deposition. Erica Johnson-Seck testified under oath that "she did not read documents she was signing, taking only about 30 seconds to sign her name," the Dispatch reported.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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