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Survivor: Inside the Beltway

Senate’s bare-bones agenda paves way for Trump’s nominees with outcome uncertain

President Donald Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, second from right, hold a listening sessions with veterans organizations in March 2017. Shulkin is the latest senior official to fall from favor with the president. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, second from right, hold a listening sessions with veterans organizations in March 2017. Shulkin is the latest senior official to fall from favor with the president. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for President Donald Trump’s nominees to top federal positions.

The confirmation process for a new secretary of Veterans Affairs, secretary of State and CIA director will help fill an otherwise bare-bones legislative calendar for the remainder of the year.

But controversy surrounding his nominees — coupled with the bitter political environment in an election year — will add even more hurdles to the already arduous Senate approval process for many of Trump’s picks.

Republican and Democratic aides are already handicapping the outcomes and say at least one of the recent nominees is likely to not clear the Senate.

The looming battle over key federal positions is one that Republicans on Capitol Hill were not expecting, but it is not necessarily unwelcome. The recent omnibus spending bill wrapped up much of the chamber’s remaining legislative work for the year.

Smaller, but still important measures — like a long-term reauthorization of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration — could still advance this year. And it remains an open question how much political capital GOP leadership will put toward advancing the twelve annual appropriations bills under so-called regular order.

But Trump’s nominees come with their own political baggage that could create significant headaches for Republicans and present an opportunity for Democrats, among them several 2020 hopefuls, to aim for the limelight.

Republican lawmakers will likely complain about Democratic obstruction in the confirmation process, but given the bipartisan concerns over the nominees, the GOP will share some of the blame for any delays.

Nominations abound

Trump surprised many in Washington when he tapped Ronny L. Jackson, the White House physician, to lead the Veterans Affairs Department.

Jackson has no significant management experience — an immediate red flag for many on the Hill. He will face questions from Republicans and Democrats alike on how he plans manage an agency with a more than $80 billion annual budget and over 377,000 employees, that provides care for millions of military veterans.

The nomination already has one major skeptic: outgoing VA Secretary David Shulkin, who on Friday avoided a full-throttle endorsement of Jackson. 

A spokeswoman for Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Jackson’s nomination would be “business as usual” for the panel. The two, who have spoken by phone, plan to meet in the coming weeks and the paperwork process will begin once the White House sends the official nomination to the chamber, the spokeswoman added.

Jackson has also spoken by phone with Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the panel’s top Democrat, a spokesman confirmed.

And tortuous questioning?

Gina Haspel, Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, will have to answer difficult questions over her alleged involvement in the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorism suspects at a “black site” prison in Thailand. Haspel is already facing pressure from GOP lawmakers such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky — the latter has already indicated he will vote against her nomination.

Haspel will likely need the support of some Democrats in order to advance. And those up for re-election this year in states Trump won — such as Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — will face the most pressure to back her confirmation.

The same can be said for Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and Trump’s pick to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State. While he was already approved 66-32 by the Senate for his current position, several Democrats have since raised significant concerns over his hawkish views on war.

Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed with Tillerson on Iran Deal

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Those concerns could be exacerbated following the recent appointment of John Bolton, who has similar views on U.S. military engagement, as national security adviser, a position that does not require Senate confirmation.

“Pompeo would arguably be the single most political secretary of State. Not only do we need someone who is willing to say ‘no’ to this president on matters of critical national security, Mr. Pompeo and Mr Bolton’s fringe and regime-change approach to diplomacy are of growing concern for those who don’t want to stumble into another war,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

Pompeo will face a litany of questions over topics ranging from the future of the Iran nuclear deal, a pending historic meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

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