Elizabeth Warren is one of the Democratic Party’s leading liberal figures. The Massachusetts senator has promised to stand up to President Donald Trump and his cabinet picks, yet voted to confirm Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in committee, despite her previous reservations.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has vowed to oppose many of Trump’s cabinet nominees, voted to confirm Gen. James Mattis as Defense Secretary and Gen. John Kelly as Homeland Security Secretary.
Those decisions have drawn stinging criticism from their supporters — some called Warren a “coward” — while Republicans have attacked Democrats for slowing the confirmation hearings and obstructing the process of government.
Democrats like Warren and Schumer, who have spoken forcefully against Trump and his policies, nevertheless face a difficult task when it comes to his cabinet nominees, said Northeastern University professor Dan Urman.
Blanket opposition to every nominee isn't usually the best move, said Urman, who teaches courses on American government, the Supreme Court, law and public policy.
“If you oppose every single person Trump nominates, I think you lose some credibility,” he said.
So far, only three of Trump’s cabinet picks have been confirmed: Mattis, Kelly and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. That leaves 12 nominees still awaiting approval, along with the many other positions selected by the president that also require a Senate vote.
“When will the Democrats give us our Attorney General and rest of Cabinet!” the president tweeted Tuesday, referring to his nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions. “They should be ashamed of themselves! No wonder D.C. doesn’t work!”
When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker posted a video to his Facebook page called “First Days of a Trump Administration: We Must Resist,” he was flooded with comments urging him to be “much tougher” and oppose all of the cabinet nominees outright.
But, Urman said, because those cabinet nominees are all selected by Trump, if one isn't approved, it is conceivable that someone “worse” will come along.
“Pick your battles," Urman said. "Maybe a housing secretary isn’t going to do as much damage as a Supreme Court pick. Maybe the secretary of state isn’t as damaging as certain executive orders."
Nearly every senator has to deal with casting votes for or against a nominee, which may reverse a previous statement, Urman said. Warren’s vote for Carson was “strategic, he said. That vote was cast in committee; the full Senate must still approve the nomination, though Republicans control the majority.
Schumer, who is Senate minority leader, has voted to confirm two of the president’s cabinet choices. Still, he announced he will oppose eight Cabinet nominees, and multiple Democrats have boycotted confirmation hearings.
Urman said he understands the frustration expressed both by the Trump opposition, and by Democratic members of Congress who are itching to "do unto them as they did unto us."
President Barack Obama did not receive a single Republican vote in Congress for the Affordable Care Act — which the Republicans are now trying to dismantle — or the stimulus package that helped pull the U.S. out from under the recession.
Now, Urman said, "the argument is, why are we turning the other cheek? Democrats are abiding by Michelle Obama — 'When they go low, we go high' — but I think a lot of Democrats want to go low."
How a Presidential Cabinet is formed
Along with the vice president, the heads of 15 executive departments make up a president's cabinet.
The process begins when the president's nomination goes to a relevant Senate committee. Certain committees have jurisdiction over certain areas; For example, the judiciary committee has jurisdiction over the Attorney General and the foreign relations committee has jurisdiction over the Department of State.
A committee's makeup should roughly mirror the ideological balance in the body, but on a smaller scale, Urman said. So if Republicans have control of the Senate, they'll have a majority of the committee, something like seven seats to the Democrats' six.
All 100 senators serve on various committees. Once they have voted to approve a nominee, that person gets "discharged" to the Senate floor, where the entire body will then vote on the nominee.
A nominee requires a majority vote to be approved.