By Alexander Bolton - 05-25-17 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans in Congress are frustrated with how long it has taken for President Trump to staff up his administration and say the lack of progress in filling important sub-Cabinet positions has stalled the agenda.
GOP lawmakers say the president has dragged his feet on submitting nominees for Senate confirmation and needs to pick up the pace.
"We need to get more names up here so we can work on them," said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking member of Senate GOP leadership.
"They need to pick up the pace," added Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking member of leadership.
Republican lawmakers worry that the administration has spent too much time putting out fires and battling with the media at the expense of the nuts and bolts of governing.
There's talk among Republican senators of urging Trump to place temporary or "acting" officials in top positions without Senate confirmation to allow the administration to move ahead more swiftly on questions of governance.
"There's some discussion about going ahead and putting in temporary ones and just running it with the guys you stick in there as an acting position, which I think is probably a good idea," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Armed Services and Environment and Public Works committees.
Inhofe said those temporary appointees may be more willing to implement Trump's ambitious agenda than more middle-of-the-road picks who have to be carefully selected to survive the Senate's rigorous confirmation process.
"The temporary guys are going to be considered more radical, probably," Inhofe said.
Federal law allows such officials to serve without Senate approval for up to 210 days or, in some cases, up to 420 days, according to the Congressional Research Service.
As of May 20, Trump had sent only 94 nominees to Capitol Hill, and the Senate had confirmed only 35 of them - a fraction of the 550-plus so-called key positions requiring Senate confirmation.
The pace is substantially slower than under previous presidents, according to a running tally compiled by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group.
Part of the problem, GOP lawmakers say, is that it's taken a long time for the White House to clear people through the Office of Government Ethics.
"Trump is running way behind either [George W.] Bush or [Barack] Obama in filling the top positions in his administration," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
At a similar point during Barack Obama's first term in office, the Democrat-controlled Senate had confirmed 130 of 219 nominees sent to Congress.
Four months into George W. Bush's administration, the Senate had confirmed 60 of 177 nominations it had received.
At the same point in Bill Clinton's presidency, the Senate had approved 101 of 201 nominees.
"It's a problem. We're not getting the mid-level nominees. That's really what we need to be getting, to run through the system," Inhofe said.
He said the slow pace of confirming undersecretaries and other positions in various departments and agencies has hampered Cabinet-level officials that Republicans spent weeks pushing through the Senate earlier this year.
"It's the left hands being tied of Scott Pruitt and [other officials] because they can't get things done," Inhofe added, referring to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "Right now they don't have the manpower to do it."
"There's no question that it's been slower," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "This is a burdensome, difficult process, and Trump has bested even the slowest administrations in putting his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place."
"It's a lack of action to identify nominees and put them in the pipeline," Light added. "He's slower nominating, and, therefore, the Senate is slow in confirming."
Compounding the problem is the amount of time it has taken to confirm nominees once they're sent to the Senate.
It has taken an average of 41 days to confirm Trump's nominees, nine days longer than the average for Obama's nominees during his first four months in office, according to the Post and the Partnership for Public Service.
Republicans blame obstructionist tactics deployed by Democrats for the slow pace.
Of 38 civilian nominations confirmed by the Senate so far, Democrats have forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to schedule 23 votes to end filibusters of those nominations.
A Senate GOP aide said it's "crazy" that Democrats forced McConnell to hold a vote to end a filibuster on Dan Coats, Trump's director of national intelligence, who retired from the Senate earlier this year and was respected among his colleagues.
It took Senate Republicans a week to confirm former Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, a well-known and respected government official, to serve as Trump's ambassador to China.
He was eventually confirmed overwhelmingly by a vote of 82-13, but only after Republicans were forced to hold a procedural vote to cut off dilatory debate.
Senate Democrats have been under intense pressure from their liberal base to pull out all the stops in fighting Trump's agenda.
While Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) can't block Trump's nominees because his predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), changed the filibuster rule for nominees in 2013, Schumer can slow them down by requiring extra procedural steps.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said it would end up taking about a month to get a final floor vote on a nominee recently passed by his panel.
"Given that we started with 1,200 nominations that needed to be confirmed - what have we done, maybe 40-some? - at this rate we'll be doing them seven years from now," Burr said.
The Office of Personnel Management lists 1,242 positions that require Senate confirmation. Of that number, between 554 and 559 are generally considered key positions.
Burr said Democrats have in some cases slowed down nominees that have been reported with unanimous approval out of committee.
Some Republican lawmakers argue that if Trump goes ahead and appoints officials to serve in sub-Cabinet positions, it would allow his agenda to move forward despite the Democratic tactics.
"We need to get the names up and then we need to go through that process. Here we are approaching June, for goodness' sake, half of the year is gone and these people don't have their team," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"I don't know of any other administration that has been slow-walked like this," he said.