Awaiting Senate confirmation, Trump cabinet posts left vacant

Entering President Donald Trump’s third week, only five members of his cabinet have been sworn in, including the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation. The heads of 15 other departments are awaiting Senate confirmation. In addition, hundreds of staff positions remain vacant. Roll Call Reporter Niels Lesniewski joins Alison Stewart from Washington to discuss.

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  • ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Billionaire businessman Vincent Viola, President Trump's pick to be the secretary of the army, has withdrawn from consideration. A West Point graduate and retired army officer, Viola, owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team, said the challenges of separating himself from his businesses have, quote, "proven insurmountable."

    Entering the administration's third week, only five members of President Trump's cabinet picks are on the job, including the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation. But the heads of the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Health, Labor, Housing, Veterans Affairs and nine others still await Senate confirmation.

    Joining me from Washington to discuss the status of cabinet nominees is "Roll Call" reporter Niels Lesniewski.

    Niels, what is the day-to-day impact of only having about a quarter of the cabinet seated?

  • NIELS LESNIEWSKI, ROLL CALL REPORTER:

    Well, the real impact is in departments and agencies where the Trump administration and congressional Republicans want to make big changes really quickly. So, for example, health and human services, Tom Price, the congressman from Georgia who has been nominated to head that up, is going to be the person that the Trump administration has in charge of rolling out policy changes, both in sort of executive actions and legislatively to repeal and roll back Obamacare. And then the treasury secretary, when Steve Mnuchin gets confirmed, he's probably going to be tasked as the point man on any rewrite of the tax code.

    So, to the extent that there are agencies that are continuing to sort of do the work that they had been doing under President Obama to some degree, those sorts of functions continue. It's really the place where's they want to do a wholesale change of what was being done during the Obama years that they have the biggest problems.

  • STEWART:

    There's something that I noticed watching television, I've seen these advertisements for cabinet picks, touting who they are and what they might do. Scott Pruitt, for example, for the EPA, they're being paid for by different organizations that, obviously, support that agenda. But why is this — what does it say that we have commercials about cabinet picks?

  • LESNIEWSKI:

    Well, I think that the commercials about the cabinet picks are laying the groundwork for the eventual votes that take place on the floor of the Senate, so that when, let's say you are a voter in Indianapolis, and your senator, Joe Donnelly, votes against — who is a Democrat — votes against some of these Trump nominees, there are already ads that may have already been running against him. I think a lot of this is sort of laying the groundwork for the ad campaigns that take place down the road against the incumbent Democratic senators.

  • STEWART:

    How much of this lack of confirmation has to do with the vetting process taking longer? How much of it has to do with politics?

  • LESNIEWSKI:

    There were some vetting questions with some of the nominees that largely have been resolved now, although, some still have not. A lot of this now is political, however. What we're seeing, and we'll see starting on Monday, is the Senate basically being in maybe continuously through the weekends, up until the president's day recess, trying to get as many of these confirmed as possible, with Democrats basically taking up all the debate time imaginable for people like Jeff Sessions, the pick to be the attorney general, for Tom Price for HSS, and some other picks, that the idea here is that the Democrats really seem to be wanting the Senate Republicans to do as little as possible on the floor and basically by drag this process out as long as they can, it minimizes the opportunity to do anything else.

  • STEWART:

    Niels Lesniewski, from "Roll Call" — thanks a lot.

  • LESNIEWSKI:

    Thank you.

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