During a chaotic day on Capitol Hill, the Senate confirmed Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson by a vote of 56 to 43. Reuters reports it was the closest vote -- by a wide margin -- for a secretary of state nominee in at least a half-century. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general in a straight party-line vote. Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted committee votes on two of Donald Trump's Cabinet picks: Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Tom Price for health and human services secretary. The committee rules require at least one Democrat present to vote. Republicans on the committee then suspended the rules and voted to send the two nominations to the Senate floor. Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee also boycotted a vote on Scott Pruitt to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency. For more, we speak with Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post. His most recent piece is titled "After Trying Everything Else, Democrats Have Decided to Listen to Their Voters."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: It was a chaotic day on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The Senate confirmed Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson by a vote of 56 to 43. Reuters reports it was the closest vote -- by a wide margin -- for a secretary of state nominee in at least a half-century. Three Democrats backed Tillerson's nomination: Mark Warner of Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general in a straight party-line vote. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted committee votes on two of Donald Trump's Cabinet picks: Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Tom Price for health and human services secretary. Republicans on the committee then suspended the rules and voted to send the two nominations to the Senate floor. Senator Sherrod Brown defended the Democratic boycott.
SEN. SHERROD BROWN: What's next is we want the secretary designee of Health and Human Services and secretary designee of treasurer to own up. The respected newspapers, conservative newspapers, both, say they lied about essential information. In our state, the secretary of the Treasury, his company, his bank, foreclosed on at least hundreds of Ohioans wrongfully. And I want him to explain what happened, why he did it, what he did. And I would hope he could make people whole, when they basically threw people out of their homes.
AMY GOODMAN: Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee also boycotted a vote on Scott Pruitt to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In other Senate news, the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary appears to be on thin ice as two Republicans -- Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski -- announced plans to vote against DeVos, leaving Senate Republicans one vote short of confirming her. If the Senate vote is 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence would then cast the deciding vote -- an event that has never happened to any other presidential nominee in history. DeVos is a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. She and her husband have also invested in a student debt collection agency that does business with the Education Department.
And to cap off the day, President Trump urged the Republican leadership to consider using the so-called nuclear option -- that's instituting a rule change to prohibit filibusters -- to push through the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
To make sense of what's happening on Capitol Hill, we're joined now by Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post. His most recent piece is headlined "After Trying Everything Else, Democrats Have Decided to Listen to Their Voters."
So, explain what you mean, Ryan.
RYAN GRIM: Well, I mean, if you think about the history of the Democratic Party, you probably have to go back to the early 1970s to find a place where the activist base was kind of leading the party forward. So, you know, right after the inauguration, Democrats -- even Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders -- were saying, you know, "We're willing to work with Donald Trump. We want to give him a chance." And the Democratic base kind of erupted at that, and they were like, "No, this person is a lunatic. You cannot work with him. You have to resist him at every step." And kind of the mantra of kind of "resist or resign" rose up. Then you had millions of people filling the streets with the women's marches. But it didn't stop there. You've had people outside of Democratic offices. You've had phone calls pouring in. And you've really seen the tenor change on Capitol Hill.
And, you know, moderate Democrats, who in the past would have been very happy to work with, say, a Rex Tillerson and vote for a secretary of state like that, instead are saying no and are demanding more information. They started boycotting hearings. You even had Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker grab a bullhorn and go to the Supreme Court and kind of hold an impromptu rally. So, you know, they're trying. You know, they look a little bit awkward at times when they're doing it, because they're not used to it -- these are muscles that haven't been flexed in a long time. But clearly, they recognize that there is a lot of energy and opposition, and that's where they're headed at the moment.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let's go back to the Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing from last month, in this clip when she was questioned by Senator Al Franken.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: I would like your views on the relative advantage of measuring -- doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.
BETSY DEVOS: Thank you, Senator, for that question. I think if I'm understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would -- I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that you -- each student is measured according to the advancement that they're making in each subject area.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, that's growth. That's not proficiency. So, in other words, the growth they're making is in growth. The proficiency is --
BETSY DEVOS: If they've reached --
SEN. AL FRANKEN: -- an arbitrary standard.
BETSY DEVOS: If they've reached a level -- the proficiency is if they've reached a like third grade level for reading, etc.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: No, I'm talking about the debate between proficiency and growth --
BETSY DEVOS: Yes.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: -- and what your thoughts are on them.
BETSY DEVOS: Well, I was just asking to clarify then --
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, this is -- this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That's Al Franken questioning education secretary designate Betsy DeVos last month during her confirmation hearing. Ryan Grim, can you comment on what her response was to the questions that Franken was asking her?
RYAN GRIM: It was kind of a flabbergasting response, because this debate between growth and proficiency, there are -- I think that there are people of good faith on each side of the debate within education policy, but in the era of school assessments, it is one of the fundamental debates in education policy. This is it, you know, like where you stand on whether you should be measuring the growth of a student or whether you should be measuring kind of a flat proficiency at a grade level -- you know, where you stand on that kind of defines your view on education policy today. And what her answer suggested, quite clearly, is that she hasn't thought about this debate, she's unfamiliar with this debate.
And so, while a lot of people talk about a level of malevolence within the Trump administration, you also have an extraordinary amount of incompetence and ignorance. You know, to have an education secretary who literally doesn't know about the primary issue -- not that she's wrong on the issue necessarily, but she doesn't even know what it is -- is an extraordinary thing. And it flows into putting Ben Carson at the top of Housing and Urban Development, who has absolutely no experience in housing policy whatsoever and has himself said that he's unqualified for a Cabinet position. So, you know, we're in extraordinary territory. And so, when Democrats are taking a stand in opposition to a lot of these candidates because the base is pushing them there, when they finally get there, they see that, well, this actually is intellectually the right position, too.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, Ryan, you have, on Wednesday, two Republican senators, both women, announcing they will not confirm DeVos as secretary of education: Senator Susan Collins of Maine followed by Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
RYAN GRIM: Right. And Susan Collins hinted at --
AMY GOODMAN: Let's go to a clip of them.
RYAN GRIM: Sure.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: In keeping with my past practice, I will vote today to proceed to debate on Mrs. DeVos's nomination. But, Madam President, I will not -- I cannot -- vote to confirm her as our nation's next secretary of education.
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI: I do not intend to vote on final passage to support Mrs. DeVos to be secretary of education. So I thank the chairman of the committee.
AMY GOODMAN: Senators Murkowski and Collins. This is quite stunning. It's also interesting that they are women, women certainly in the minority in the Senate. You also have the women judges and the attorney general who has gotten in Trump's way when it comes to the immigration ban, you know, blocking these bans, saying that they won't enforce them. But the significance of this and then what this means? If Senator Sessions were approved as attorney general before this vote, he would not be able to vote, if he were confirmed, and this would mean that DeVos would go down. But his confirmation has just been voted out of the committee, and I'm sure they'll wait so that he can vote. That would then just make this 50-50, unless another Republican says no. Is that right?
RYAN GRIM: Yeah, that's exactly right. So it means they have to keep Jeff Sessions in the Senate as long as they possibly can so that he can be around to vote for DeVos and any other other nominees that they feel like are going to be right up against the edge, because as soon as he becomes attorney general, he can no longer vote in the Senate.
And I think there are a couple other significant things about their vote. One is that while Alaska and Maine are rural states, public education is still -- is still an important factor there. And, you know, not only teachers, but parents of children in public schools are extremely motivated. And Collins hinted at this, but Murkowski said it explicitly. She told me she got 30,000 calls over this last week, almost all of them anti-DeVos. And she said that that helped her decide to oppose her. So, you know, activism from within these states did in fact move these people.
Now, a Mitch McConnell spokesman told me that they still have the votes, and they're confident that she's going to be confirmed. And Mitch McConnell is known for being quite an extraordinary vote counter. So I would count on her, at this point, being confirmed. But the level of hostility towards her --
AMY GOODMAN: So, Pence, though, would have to come --
RYAN GRIM: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Pence would have to come, the first time ever --
RYAN GRIM: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: -- for a confirmation of a Cabinet pick.
RYAN GRIM: Right, exactly. And that would be -- like you said, that's a historical moment to have an education secretary that is so controversial that, even though you have a Senate majority, you need your own vice president to push her over the top.
AMY GOODMAN: And now you have Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, immediately jumping into the fray, has to deal with the travel ban and Iran. Now, Iran, he's very familiar with, in dealing with Iran around the cruise missile that they just -- that they just tested, because he was the longtime CEO of ExxonMobil --
RYAN GRIM: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: -- and actually had some secret negotiations with Iran.
RYAN GRIM: Right, right. And this is going to be extraordinarily difficult politics for somebody like Rex Tillerson, because, you know, he is quite friendly with Vladimir Putin and with Russia, as is Donald Trump. Russia is the -- you know, Iran is the client of Russia. So, it's not even clear that Trump knows that he is, on the one hand, picking a fight with the client and, on the other hand, cozying up to the boss state, at the same time that he's picking a fight with Australia's prime minister, hanging up the phone on him, and threatening to send troops into Mexico. This is literally just in the last 24 hours.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, on Wednesday, President Trump urged the Republican leadership to consider using the so-called nuclear option -- that is, instituting a rule change to prohibit filibusters -- to push through the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But if we end up with that gridlock, I would say, "If you can, Mitch, go nuclear," because that would be a absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web. So I would say -- it's up to Mitch, but I would say, "Go for it."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Ryan Grim, that's Trump saying to go for the nuclear option.
RYAN GRIM: My read on this is that Republicans will end up getting enough Democrats to support this nominee so that they'll get 60 votes and won't actually go nuclear. I think that there's 100 percent -- close to 100 percent certainty that if they don't get to the 60 votes, they would go nuclear on this.
But I think the further significance of this is that if Donald Trump is pushing some legislative agenda in the future, that -- not a Supreme Court nominee, but just a legislative agenda -- and Democrats are filibustering it, you're going to see him pushing for the nuclear option on legislation, too. You know, Donald Trump is not somebody who's going to say, "Oh, well, my agenda can't get through because of, you know, the established norms of our democratic society. Well, then, oh, well, that's too bad. I lost." He's somebody who's going to say, "No, we need to change those rules and push that through." So I think you certainly haven't seen the last of that.
But you're going to see, I think, Mitch McConnell push back. He doesn't necessarily want the 60-vote threshold to come down, because, kind of paradoxically, he loses power relative to Donald Trump then, because if Mitch McConnell can tell Donald Trump, "Look, I would love to do your infrastructure project, but I just don't have 60 votes," then there isn't a whole lot Donald Trump can do except push on Twitter and in speeches and in rallies for the nuclear option. So, but that has the capacity then to tear the Republican Party apart heading into 2018. So, you know, who knows where this element of it is going?
AMY GOODMAN: It's pretty terrifying watching TV. You see the -- Iran's missile going off, and then you see "nuclear option" flashing across the screen, back and forth.
RYAN GRIM: Yes, yes. Maybe we need --
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the nuclear option is not to do, at least at this point, with Iran.
RYAN GRIM: Right. Yeah, maybe we need a new phrase for what's happening in the Senate, since "nuclear option" is becoming, you know, literal rather than metaphorical.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have Rex Tillerson facing a thousand diplomats and others within the State Department signing on against the travel ban. And we're going to end on that, with just 30 seconds, Ryan.
RYAN GRIM: Sure. I mean, Rex Tillerson, I don't think, you know, six months ago, thought there was any possibility that he was going to be secretary of state of the United States. And now, like you said, he has the entire world against him. But that's kind of a familiar position for an Exxon CEO, and they've managed to thrive despite that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ryan Grim, we thank you so much for being with us, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Huffington Post. We'll link to your story, "After Trying Everything Else, Democrats Have Decided to Listen to Their Voters."
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the travel ban. Stay with us.