GOP pushes 2 top Cabinet picks through to full Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans jammed two of President Donald Trump's top Cabinet picks through the Senate Finance Committee with no Democrats in the room Wednesday after suspending a rule that would have otherwise barred them from taking the vote. The tactic seemed a warning shot that they might deploy brute political muscle in the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court vacancy.

With a near-toxic vapor of divisiveness between the two parties across Capitol Hill, nasty showdowns broke out elsewhere as well. One Senate panel signed off on Trump's choice for attorney general only after senators exchanged heated words, and another committee postponed a vote on the would-be chief of the Environmental Protection Agency after Democrats refused to show up.

Busting through a Democratic boycott of the Finance panel, all 14 Republicans took advantage of Democrats' absence to temporarily disable a committee rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for votes.

They then used two 14-0 roll calls to approve financier Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be health secretary, ignoring Democrats' demands that the two nominees provide more information about their financial backgrounds.

All the nominations will need full Senate approval.

Underscoring Congress' foul mood, Finance panel Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democrats should be "ashamed" for staying away from his committee's meeting.

"I don't feel a bit sorry for them," he told reporters, adding later, "I don't care what they want at this point."

Trump won one major victory, as the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. The mostly party-line 56-43 vote came with Democrats critical of Tillerson's close ties to Russia as former Exxon Mobil CEO. Tillerson was sworn in later Wednesday at the White House.

But the prospects that GOP donor Betsy DeVos would win approval as education secretary were jarred when two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, said they opposed her. Both challenged her support for public education, and their defections meant Vice President Mike Pence might need to break a tie in a Senate that Republicans control 52-48. 

Congress' day was dominated by confrontation, even as lawmakers braced for an even more ferocious battle over Trump's nomination of conservative federal judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

Democrats were already furious over Republicans' refusal to even consider last year President Barack Obama's pick for the slot, Judge Merrick Garland. Trump fueled the fire by urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to "go nuclear" -- shorthand for a unilateral change in the chamber's rules so Democrats can't block Gorsuch with a filibuster.

Without a rules change, Republicans will need at least eight Democrats to reach the 60-votes necessary to halt filibusters, or endless procedural delays.

Democrats boycotted Wednesday's abruptly called Finance Committee meeting, as they'd done for a session a day earlier. They say Price and Mnuchin have lied about their financial backgrounds and must answer more questions.

"It's deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the Finance Committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees' serious ethical problems," said the panel's top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Democrats say Price had special access to low-priced shares in an Australian biomed firm, even though he testified the offer was available to all investors. They say Mnuchin ran a bank that processed home foreclosures with a process critics say invites fraud.

The two men have denied wrongdoing and have solid Republican backing.

The Senate Judiciary Committee used a party-line 11-9 vote to sign off on Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., for attorney general. That came after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had misrepresented remarks he'd made about Sessions weeks ago.

Cruz wasn't present as Franken spoke. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, interrupted Franken twice, calling it "untoward and inappropriate" to disparage the absent Cruz.

Franken said Cruz "personally went after me, he personally impugned my integrity." Angrily pointing at Cornyn, he asked, "You didn't object then, did you?"

Cornyn said he wasn't sure he was there when Cruz spoke.                                                                         

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Democrats boycotted a planned vote on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The vote was postponed.

Pruitt has questioned the scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to global warming and joined lawsuits against the agency's emission curbs.

Another panel postponed a vote on Trump's pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee's FBI file.

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   Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Michael Biesecker contributed to this report.

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