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Senate leaves town with HHS, NASA nominees in limbo

December 22, 2017

FILE- In this Nov. 29, 2017, file photo, Alex Azar, President Donald Trump's nominee to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Senate has left town for the year without acting on dozens of President Donald Trump's nominees, including his pick to head the Health and Human Services Department. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate left town for the year without acting on dozens of President Donald Trump’s nominees, including his picks to head the Health and Human Services Department and NASA.

The Senate’s lack of action returns the nominations to the White House, which will have to renominate them in January if Trump wants them installed. Among the nominees in limbo are former pharmaceutical company executive Alex Azar to run Health and Human Services, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine to head NASA and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for an ambassador’s post.

The nomination of KT McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser nominated as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, is in doubt amid questions about her communications with ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said nominees will be considered once they are resubmitted next year.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., blamed Democrats for using procedural tactics to slow up Trump nominees.

“We’ve got agencies all over this town that can’t answer a question because the bureaucrats are waiting on a Senate-confirmed individual to be able to lead that ... particular agency,” said Lankford, who has pushed to change Senate rules to streamline the confirmation process.

Too many nominees “sit and wait,” Lankford said Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor.

Democrats point out that the administration has taken its time in submitting official paperwork to the Senate on the nominees and also has withdrawn a number of high-level appointees, including choices for Labor secretary, Army secretary and drug czar.

McConnell also has made judicial appointments a priority and Trump has gotten 19 confirmed, including 12 circuit judges, the most in a president’s first year in office in more than a century.

Under Senate rules, an appointee who has not received a confirmation vote by the end of the year must be nominated again unless senators agree unanimously to carry the nomination into the new year. Dozens of nominees, including Azar, Bridenstine and Brownback, were not granted exemptions, meaning at least one senator objected.

Azar has been nominated to replace Tom Price, who resigned in September over questions about his use of private jets.

A former Eli Lilly and Co. executive, Azar served three years on the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority as it struggled to contain CEO John Clark III, who by some estimates racked up more than $200,000 in publicly funded travel.

Senators at Azar’s confirmation hearing last month focused on whether he is willing to stand up for consumers rather than “Big Pharma” as a former executive at the Indiana drug giant.

A Trump administration official said Azar will be renominated early next month. The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination, with a vote expected in a few weeks.

Sheryl Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Bridenstine, said the congressman is optimistic the Senate will move “expeditiously” to confirm his nomination when it is refiled early next year.

A Senate committee narrowly backed Bridenstine last month. Democrats criticized past comments he made dismissive of global warming as a man-made problem. They also questioned whether he would keep the space agency from being mired in political battles.

Brownback faces opposition from Democrats and LGBT groups. In 2015, he rescinded an executive order banning discrimination in state hiring and employment against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals. Brownback, a social conservative, argued that the GOP-controlled Legislature should sign off on such a policy.

Brownback told The Associated Press earlier this week that his nomination had taken “way too long, as have a number of nominations this year.”

Other nominees being delayed include Kathleen Hartnett White, who has been named to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Thomas Farr, a district court nominee whose work defending North Carolina’s redistricting maps and a voter identification law has raised concerns among civil rights advocates.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment Committee, said White’s “extreme” record “and shockingly poor performance” before the panel “elicited serious concerns on both sides of the aisle.”

Carper said he is hopeful Trump will “start the new year on the right foot by nominating a new and better qualified candidate to lead this consequential office.”

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas contributed to this story.

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