Editorial: Shaheen, Hassan and nominees

  • President Obama laughs with Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan at Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington on Nov. 7. AP

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

America rightly prides itself on its history of peaceful transitions of power from one president and party to the next.

But battles are nonetheless being fought, verbal missiles launched, defensive bulwarks erected and sabotage efforts underway.

Richard Nixon, according to recently declassified information that appears in a new book on the impeached president by journalist John A. Farrell, sabotaged peace talks with North Vietnam to help ensure his defeat of then-vice president Hubert Humphrey, an act President Lyndon Johnson said constituted treason.

Nothing that nefarious, we hope, is currently underway but, though President-elect Donald Trump won’t take office for another two weeks, the battles have begun. They’re taking place privately in talks between senators and Trump’s nominees for Cabinet positions and other high offices. This week they’ll be conducted publicly when those nominees begin appearing before the congressional committees that will give each of them an up or down vote.

Trump’s nominees are a curious lot. Some, like choosing former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, seem like a sick joke pulled on the public. Perry’s 2012 presidential bid was derailed when, during a debate, he couldn’t remember all three of the federal departments he’d pledged to eliminate. The one that escaped him? Energy.

New Hampshire’s senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, have begun questioning nominees. Shaheen met with Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO Trump picked for secretary of state, last week. In a press release, Shaheen said she used the meeting to stress the importance of issues Trump had attacked, namely the importance of support for NATO, the need to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power and the importance of America’s participation in the international effort to combat climate change.

Here’s how the process works. The Senate, under the Constitution, must confirm or reject Cabinet-level nominees and Supreme Court justices. There’s no firm timetable for doing so but traditionally the process proceeds quickly. That probably won’t be the case this year. Republicans stalled for a record 293 days to block President Obama’s nomination of moderate jurist Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court in a strategy designed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With his usual shameless hypocrisy, McConnell warned Democrats last week that the public wouldn’t countenance delay but we expect slow action by Democrats eager to pay Republicans back for denying Obama a Supreme Court seat.

Cabinet appointees can be confirmed, thanks to a rules change engineered by Democrats, with a simple majority vote. Since Republicans control 52 Senate seats, absent defections all nominees could be confirmed.

Shaheen and Hassan will get a chance to vote on several nominees and they should, and almost certainly will, vote to reject any with conflicts of interest or an avowed attempt to destroy the agencies they were picked to lead. On others, they could do New Hampshire and the nation a service by lobbying Republican senators who are not inflexible ideologues, that would be a waste of time, but who have their own reservations about a nominee.

Supreme Court nominations must still be passed with 60 votes and Democrats can be expected to filibuster a controversial nominee.

Shaheen serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, thus her meeting with Tillerson, and on the Appropriations, Armed Services and Small Business committees. Hassan, who just took office, has been named to the Commerce, Science and Transportation, Joint Economic, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Health, Education, Labor and Pension committees. A committee’s vote carries weight but the full Senate, which must vote on each nomination, is not bound to follow a committee’s recommendation.

It’s not unheard of for a nominee to withdraw his or her name during or after intense Senate scrutiny. Shaheen and Hassan should make nominees prove that they deserve to hold the positions Trump has named them to.

(Clarification: An earlier version of this editorial omitted two of Sen. Hassan’s committee assignments – Joint Economic and Commerce, Science and Transportation.)