Senate Confirmation Hearings: Everything to Know

President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn into office in less than two weeks. Whether he has a cabinet ready to help him on day-one largely depends on how fast the men and women he tapped to lead federal agencies can be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Eight of Trump's picks will sit for confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill this week and they can expect a grilling.

Democrats have expressed frustration that several of the candidates have yet to disclose all the financial documents necessary for a full vetting and sign-off from the Office of Governmental Ethics. The office reviews potential conflict of interest issues and says it still has work to do. But whether Democrats can stop any of the picks from being confirmed is an open question.

Here's a closer look at how the process works:

Who Needs Senate Confirmation?

All cabinet-level officials, except the White House chief of staff, require Senate confirmation, including: the secretaries of agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, homeland security, housing and urban development, interior, labor, state, transportation, treasury, and veterans affairs, as well as the attorney general, director of the Office of Management and Budget, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. trade representative, ambassador to the United Nations, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Hundreds of other senior posts and agency heads (1,212, to be exact) require Senate confirmation, too, after background checks. Essentially, heads of agencies and a lot of deputies need to be confirmed, whereas adviser positions for the president do not. For example: CIA director, yes; national security adviser, no.

The level of Senate confirmations has created a backlog in committees on Capitol Hill and left agencies understaffed. The Washington Post reported in 2013 that when Janet Napolitano resigned as secretary of homeland security, there were 15 vacant leadership positions in that department.

When Does the President Send Appointments to the Hill?

Before a nomination may move to the Hill, the candidate must submit several forms and undergo a fair amount of vetting by the White House and FBI. What is gathered in this process (by looking at, for example, financial disclosure reports, criminal checks and questionnaires about ties to foreign governments) could be used by the president or president-elect to withdraw a nomination or present it to the Senate as evidence in hearings.

In 2004, Congress passed legislation to "encourage a president-elect to submit, for security clearance, potential nominees to high-level national security positions as soon as possible after the election," according to the Congressional Research Service. The goal was to "reduce the elapsed time between a new president's inauguration and the appointment of his or her national security team."

What Does the Confirmation Process Look Like?

1) A nomination is given to the relevant Senate committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, handles the attorney general nomination.

2) That committee can then hold hearings, vote to move the nomination straight to the Senate floor for a vote or not move on it at all (in which case, the committee effectually kills the nomination).

3) After hearings, the committee votes to report a nomination to the full Senate, requiring a simple majority. It may vote to report the nomination favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. If a committee sits on an appointment, the full Senate may vote to invoke cloture and move the nomination along.

4) If a nomination clears committee, it moves to the Senate floor for a simple majority vote. Filibusters are not an issue here because Democrats changed Senate rules three years ago to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for most nominations. Supreme Court picks are still subject to filibuster.

Will Trump Have the Votes?

The GOP barely kept its majority in the Senate after this year's elections, and rejections of major appointments are rare. Republicans have 51 seats right now and will likely have 52 by January. (Louisiana's race is in a runoff, and ABC News' race rating is solid Republican.) But that number includes Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, who is Trump's pick for attorney general.

That raises some questions. Will Sessions vote for himself? When John Kerry was in the Senate and required confirmation as secretary of state, he voted "present."

Could some Republicans defect? Yup. Could there be a tie? Maybe. Would Republicans need to use soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence's vote as a tie breaker? Possibly.

When Do Hearings Start?

Hearings are set to start this week. A nominee may not be confirmed, however, until after the president is sworn in on Jan. 20. The full list of scheduled hearings is posted below.


  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions - Jan. 10-11, 9:30 a.m.
  • Homeland Security: John Kelly - Jan. 10, 3:30 p.m.
  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson - Jan. 11-12, 9 a.m., 10 a.m.
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo - Jan. 11, 10 a.m.
  • Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao - Jan. 11, 10:15 a.m.
  • Secretary of Commerce: Wilbur Ross - Jan. 12, 10 a.m.
  • Secretary of Housing: Ben Carson, Jan. 12, 10 a.m.
  • Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos - Jan. 17, 5 p.m.
  • Secretary of Labor: Andy Puzder - Jan. 17 (tentative)
  • U.N. Ambassador: Nikki Haley - Jan. 18 (tentative)
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