U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says he knows Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be secretary of transportation, and is likely to support her confirmation. He's also heard good things about retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump's pick for secretary of defense.
But in general, the senior senator from Illinois, who is second-in-command of Senate Democrats, said in an interview Friday that he finds the Trump Cabinet nominees seeking confirmation to be "a complex group" who are "very rich."
When Chicago native Penny Pritzker, who is a billionaire, was being confirmed as President Barack Obama's commerce secretary, Durbin said, "It took six months to clear her financial background information before she could be seriously considered for the job.
"Well, there are a handful or more of people in the same category in the Trump list of nominees, so this is a complicated situation. They certainly should not be disqualified because of their wealth, nor should they be given a free ride because of their wealth. But we have to look at each candidate honestly and determine if there is any conflict of interest."
Among the Republican Trump's nominees is Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, who is worth more than $300 million, according to Forbes.
The oil company, Durbin said, has interests around the world, and Tillerson received a friendship award from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among "obvious questions" for Tillerson, Durbin said, is "Are you able to walk away from a lifetime of corporate leadership, particularly in the petroleum industry, and ... make decisions that are unpopular, if not unacceptable, to that same industry?"
Betsy DeVos, daughter-in-law of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, is Trump's choice for secretary of education, and Forbes pegged her wealth at $1.25 billion.
"She has been a champion for charter schools, which I believe have a place in our educational picture," Durbin said. "But the vast majority of students in America are in public schools, and the jury is out as to what she feels about those schools and public education, so I'm withholding any judgment on her until she's had a chance to testify."
Charter schools get public funding but don't have to follow all the rules that apply to regular public schools.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is Trump's choice to lead the Department of Energy, which was among three agencies Perry said during his 2012 presidential campaign that he would abolish if elected, and the one he forgot when listing those agencies in a debate.
"What a dramatic departure from the two secretaries of energy under Barack Obama, who were both considered expert globally when it comes to issues of energy," Durbin said. "Governor Perry does not hold any of those titles, that's for sure."
"I can't understand how a man could take on the responsibility of administering a department when he has stated that he wants to turn out the lights," Durbin added. "And God forbid he would." He said the agency is critical to Illinois research facilities, including the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, both in suburban Chicago.
"I mean, the kind of research that's being done through the Department of Energy, not just in energy, but in the whole area of imaging, in hospitals, all of these things," Durbin said. "In addition to that, he has custodial responsibility for our nuclear arsenal. ... I mean, here's a man who has literally no background in this area, so he has a lot of questions to answer."
Trump also has named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Durbin said that pick is like Perry at energy, saying Pruitt has "made it clear that he opposes the basic mission" of the agency.
"That to me is a very poor choice," Durbin said. "I don't know what he's going to say in his testimony, but his actions leading up to this are not encouraging."
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who ran for president last year, has been named by Trump to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Armstrong Williams, a friend of Carson's, had told the publication The Hill in November that Carson "feels he has no government experience; he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency."
"Housing and Urban Development is a tough assignment, and it takes a lot of hard work," Durbin said. "He's obviously a bright man, to be a neurosurgeon, but whether he has the skills to manage a department with thousands of employees and to deal with the serious housing issues and urban development issues across America remains to be seen."
Not sure on Sessions
Durbin met last week with his Senate colleague Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is Trump's choice for attorney general.
Durbin said he and Sessions are so familiar with one another that they could probably give each other's speeches.
"We have worked together on one issue, and we have been adversaries on a lot of issues," Durbin said of he and Sessions.
The issue where they came to some agreement was the part of criminal justice reform that was an effort to even sentencing for people convicted of possessing or selling crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Decades-old law had about 100 times the sentence for crack, Durbin said. He said Sessions agreed to help change the law so the ratio came down to 18-1. But thousands of people still remain in prison and there's more to be done, Durbin said.
"We agreed on the front end of this, but he has not followed through on any other criminal justice reform issues," Durbin said. "That was the one thing we worked on together, and he talks about it a lot."
Durbin also said that he's concerned that while Sessions had voted in the past to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a major provision, "he became strident in his opposition" to the act.
The high court in 2013 struck down a provision that required nine states, including Alabama, to get federal approval before changing election laws.
Durbin thinks voter-identification laws and other changes in some states are "really just designed to discourage and stop minorities and poor people from voting," and there "just is no evidence of voter fraud in these states to justify the changes that state legislatures are making."
"We had a long discussion about it when he came by my office," Durbin said of Sessions. "This to me is one of the most critical issues in terms of his responsibility as attorney general."
Chao was labor secretary under President George W. Bush and is wife of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"She is a bright, charming, conservative Republican, and I will bend over backwards to support (her)," Durbin said of Trump's choice to lead the transportation department. "I know that we're going to disagree on policy issues, but I like her and respect her. ... I believe when it's all over, I'll be supporting her."
And while Gen. Mattis, Trump's pick for defense, lacks experience managing a "huge department," Durbin said, "He's received high marks from some people I respect," including Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary who also headed the Central Intelligence Agency.
'Going to be a battle'
As a general rule, Durbin said, he doesn't come out for or against presidential appointees until they answer questions and he checks background materials. With Republicans holding 52 of the 100 seats in the newly seated Senate, Durbin said, it would take three Republicans and all other members to block Trump nominees, but "so far, there are only a few question marks that have been raised by Republicans about the nominees."
Durbin did say that on Supreme Court nominees, "You can bet that the Democrats have not forgotten" that Senate Republicans refused for nearly a year to give Federal Appellate Court Judge Merrick Garland, an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court, a hearing or confirmation vote.
"That had never -- underlined never -- happened in the history of the United States Senate," Durbin said. "It was done to keep the seat open for McConnell's hoped-for Republican president. When Trump was elected, McConnell, with a big smile on his face, declared victory."
"If President Trump sends a nominee who is viewed as moderate or middle of the road," Durbin said, "I think that nominee has a chance of being approved without controversy. But if he chooses someone who is extreme in their positions, there's going to be a battle."
Trump's pick to lead the Small Business Administration is Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment.
"I'm still wresting with that nominee," he said.
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