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Senate Dogged By Delays In Confirming Trump Cabinet Nominees


The Senate is expected to vote tomorrow on President Trump's nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. It'll be so close that Vice President Mike Pence might have to cast the tie-breaking vote. For a Cabinet nominee, that's something unheard of. Also unheard of - having so few Cabinet members confirmed this late in a presidency. The Senate has approved just four of President Trump's picks, as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: If President Trump were to call a meeting of his cabinet today, he wouldn't need a very big table. Or he'd have to invite a bunch of Obama administration holdovers serving temporarily in acting roles. The Senate confirmation process has been unusually slow, something White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has pointed out on a nearly daily basis.


SEAN SPICER: I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but the numbers don't lie. Sixteen of President Trump's nominees to head major departments and agencies are still waiting to be confirmed. At the same time in 2009, President Obama only had seven of these people waiting confirmation. In 2001, President Bush had all but two.

KEITH: According to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office, Trump has the fewest Cabinet secretaries confirmed at this point in his presidency than any other president since World War II.

MAX STIER: You can't play in the Super Bowl if you don't have your team on the field.

KEITH: Max Stier is CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that is tracking the Trump administration's progress in getting staffed up.

STIER: They are in the Super Bowl. They're running the most important organization on the planet, and they don't have their team on the field. They don't have their critical people in place, and that's vital to be able to do their jobs appropriately.

KEITH: The Trump administration would like to place the blame firmly on Democrats in the Senate, but that is only part of the story. Facing pressure from an activated base, Democrats have slow-walked Trump's nominees. David B. Cohen is a professor of political science at the University of Akron.

DAVID B. COHEN: Democrats not only disagree with them on policy, but they view many of them is utterly unqualified.

KEITH: Trump went with a number of picks who had little or no experience in the agencies they would be tasked to run. In some cases, the nominees actively worked against the missions of the agencies. Another thing that slowed down the process - candidates for Cabinet posts are typically pre-vetted, working with the Office of Government Ethics to identify and unwind potential conflicts of interest before their names are even announced, but that didn't happen this time. Three Cabinet-level picks still haven't completed that process, and that's only talking about the very top level. Cohen says there are many more positions yet to fill.

COHEN: There are an extraordinary number of appointed positions that require Senate confirmation that the Trump administration has yet to even name somebody on. I mean we're talking about almost 700 key positions.

KEITH: So far, Stier says, just 35 have been named.

STIER: If they don't focus on getting great people in place that understand how to use government effectively, they won't get done what they say they want to do, and they won't respond well to the crises that will inevitably come up on their watch.

KEITH: Stier says vacancies near the top of agencies are undesirable but certainly aren't unheard of. In 2009, he says the Treasury Department didn't get its number two official confirmed until May, which he wants to make clear was a very bad thing in the midst of the financial crisis. A White House official tells NPR they aren't behind on picking undersecretaries and deputies, pointing to the past two administrations where some second-tier appointments didn't happen until February or March. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSHY SONG, "THERE'S A LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.