politics

Your Guide to This Week’s Congressional Chaos

A "vote-a-rama" on Obamacare, a blitz of controversial confirmation hearings, and a rare Trump press conference make this a busy few days in DC.

by Harry Cheadle
Jan 9 2017, 8:43pm

Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Barack Obama has 11 more days in the White House, but America has decidedly entered the Trump era. Congress is poised to enact major legislation on everything from healthcare to gun laws to taxes, and the executive branch is being remade in Donald Trump's image—meaning the federal government is about to be run by a frothy mix of billionaires, generals, and hardcore conservative ideologues. 

This week marks the start of that process, as Republicans are set on packing a huge number of hearings to go along with a key round of voting on the upcoming Obamacare repeal. Here's a day-by-day guide to the jam-packed next few days:

Tuesday

At 9:30 AM, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, the conservative Alabama senator and longtime Trump supporter, nominated to be the next US attorney general. This will be the chance for Democrats on the committee to bring up Sessions's record as US attorney and the decades-old allegations of racism and voter suppression against him. 

Later that day, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is meeting to consider Trump's nominee for secretary of homeland security, retired Marine general John Kelly. It's unlikely that Sessions or Kelly (or any of Trump's cabinet appointees) will fail to be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate, but the GOP is moving to fill cabinet posts as quickly as possible anyway—possibly in order to avoid too many days of negative headlines. 

That night, Obama is set to make his farewell address, which will probably be unexpectedly hopeful given the circumstances.

Wednesday

The Judiciary committee will continue its hearings on Sessions, while at the same time other committees will hold hearings on Betsy DeVos, the prospective secretary of education; Elaine Chao, picked to head the Department of Transportation; Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO preparing to become secretary of state, and Representative Michael Pompeo, the proposed CIA director. The last two are likely to be the most heated—Tillerson will be grilled about his supposed friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin and his company's reported deals with Iran, and Pompeo will face questions about Trump's contentious relationship with intelligence agencies who say Russian-backed hackers stole emails from Democrats, then released them in order to help Trump get elected.

These hearings, by the way, are being held before the Office of Government Ethics has announced that all the nominees are free of potential conflicts—an irregularity that Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren has been making noise about

Also on Wednesday, the Senate will take the initial step toward repealing Obamacare. That step comes in the form of a budget resolution, which does not need to be signed by the president and sets up vague parameters for the federal budget. Democrats have no hope of stopping that resolution, but they can avail themselves of a "vote-a-rama" (seriously, that's what it's called), meaning a series of amendments that would force Republicans to vote for politically embarrassing aspects of their plan—for instance, emphasizing that people with various preexisting conditions would no longer be guaranteed insurance if Obamacare is abolished. Republicans will have to pass a more detailed resolution to actually repeal Obamacare (and, of course, they'll eventually have to replace it), but this is the first formal action the new Congress will take to kick off the healthcare wars 2.0.

Also on Wednesday, Trump is expected to hold a rare press conference, though whether he goes through with it, or whether he actually responds to reporters' questions, remains to be seen.  

Thursday

Yet more cabinet hearings are crammed into Thursday, including retried General James Mattis—nominated for secretary of defense—billionaire Wilber Ross—Commerce—and Ben Carson—Housing and Urban Development. (As usual, all hearings are happening in the morning.) Of these, Carson's seems the most interesting: Though many Trump picks are controversial due to their hardline right-wing views, Carson is controversial because his complete lack of experience makes him a cipher. If he is challenged by Democratic senators on his qualifications, it will be interesting to see how he'll respond, since Carson is also notoriously sleepy and prone to saying extremely strange things.

But of course, it likely won't matter what Carson says. The apparent Republican strategy is to put as many things as possible in front of the media at the same time in order to keep the focus off of any topic in particular—and it'll probably work. Already, there's some confusion over Andy Puzder, the fast-food mogul who is Trump's pick for secretary of labor: After reports that his confirmation hearing was set for Thursday spread around the internet, it appears that he'll have his day in front of the committee next week instead. 

The real question at the end of the week won't have anything to do with the nominees, or even the Obamacare repeal. It will be this: If this is how the GOP operates in the run-up to Trump taking office, how quickly and aggressively will it move once it has the power to actually pass laws? 

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