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Kaine and Warner will be among senators publicly vetting Trump cabinet nominees

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine will be among those asking questions this week as Senate committees begin publicly vetting President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

The two Virginia Democrats said Monday they won’t pass judgment until after the hearings, but they expressed deep concerns about some candidates – given their limited experience, incomplete background checks or views on how they might run their department of the government. They were supportive of other candidates.

“Whether it’s a president or governor, you’ve got to try to give the CEO the ability to put their own team together,” said Warner who, like Kaine, is a former governor.

“But this is an extraordinary group – for either good or bad – that is being presented. We’ve never been presented with a Cabinet with this much wealth or this much inexperience or this much extreme views.”

With Republicans holding a 52-48 edge in the 100-member Senate, Kaine acknowledged Democrats don’t have the votes to stop a nomination, “but we can surface important issues – either about the individuals or about the politics of the Trump Administration that the American public needs to know.”

Between them, Warner and Kaine serve on committees that review and vote on Trump’s nominees for secretaries of state, defense, treasury, labor, health and human services, and housing and urban development, as well as top intelligence and budget officials.

In addition to these and other senior appointees, the Senate must bless more than 1,000 other administration positions by majority votes under the body’s constitutional powers to advise and consent to presidential appointments.

Kaine and Warner will have a public say about the new administration in the following four areas.

Foreign policy

When recently retired ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, testifies before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday morning, Kaine wants to quiz him about his business and personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I want to know if this administration in toto is proposing a dramatic change in our policy with Russia,” Kaine said. “This is a nation where if you’re a political opponent or a journalist that says bad things, you can be killed.” This is a nation that’s shown complete impunity about trying to put their thumb on the scale in elections in multiple countries.”

The recently released U.S. intelligence report directly linking Putin to Russia’s attempt to influence 2016 presidential election “gives greater importance” to his views, Kaine said. “To turn a blind eye to that then we’re going to have bigger and bigger problems in the future. I just want to make sure that the team is not naive, frankly, about Russia’s capacity and Russia’s intent.”

Kaine also wants know about Exxon’s role under Tillerson in funding efforts that the senator said “muddy up what the company knew to be true about climate change.” He noted that Tillerson would be involved in the Paris Accords intended to address climate change.

National security and defense

As a member of the Select Intelligence Committee, Warner will participate in Wednesday’s hearing for Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency, and a separate hearing not yet scheduled to consider former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, a nominee to be director of national intelligence.

Warner said he “likes and respects” Coats and considers Pompeo a “smart guy.” But he wants specifics from both about respecting the work of intelligence professionals regardless of political considerations – and abiding by U.S. laws regarding torture.

”For example,” Warner said. “In terms of things like enhanced interrogation techniques – more commonly known as torture – that the new administration is going to respect the law which says it’s not American policy to torture. I’ve got that assurance but I want to hear it on the record.”

“One of the things I have a huge concern about is the role of the intelligence community to speak truth to power,” he said. “What I continue to hear from the president-elect is both a kind of a dismissal of the intelligence community’s professionalism and an unwillingness to hear news he doesn’t like.”

On Thursday, Kaine will sit with the Armed Services Committee as it questions retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee to be secretary of defense.

“Gen. Mattis is somebody that I have a pretty high degree of confidence in,” Kaine said. He added he’s hopeful Mattis and others approved by the Senate can exert some influence over Trump’s nominee for national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. Kaine said he considers Flynn, who doesn’t require Senate approval, “extremely dangerous.”

Education, housing and labor

Warner will participate in a hearing to consider former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson to be the next housing and urban development secretary. Kaine will help vet Michigan businesswoman Betsy DeVos for education secretary. Both will have a chance to question Rep. Tom Price, the Georgia Republican nominated to head the Health and Human Services Department.

Kaine, who believes strongly in the value of public schools, said he’ll question DeVos, who favors vouchers for private schools, about her commitment to public education when she testifies before a Senate committee Wednesday.

“I want to dig into her feelings about public education because I don’t think we can afford a secretary of education who is down on American public education,” Kaine said. ”If you say it should be improved ... OK, I’m all with you. But if you are going to paint with a broad brush a downer story on public education, I will have some problems with that.”

Warner, who will participate in Carson’s confirmation hearing Thursday, said he wants a clearer idea of the retired neurosurgeon’s background and his view of government support for housing.

“What does he know about housing?” Warner said. “It would really bother me if he doesn’t view that there is a role here for government.”

Kaine said the nomination of Price, a strident opponent of the Affordable Care Act, troubles him because Price favors moving to abolish the health care law before a replacement has been identified.

Kaine said he wants to know more about Andy Puzder, Trump’s labor secretary nominee. Kaine is on a committee that will vet Puzder, executive of a fast-food company who has opposed raising the minimum wage.

Finance and budget

When South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, comes before the Senate Budget Committee, both senators will be asking about his position that deep spending cuts are necessary. Mulvaney has opposed legislation raising the nation’s debt limit, supporting shutting down the government if necessary.

”I worry that Mulvaney is kind of an ideological purist on the budget who doesn’t understand how brinksmanship and uncertainty actually hurts the American economy and American workers,” Kaine said.

Warner has doubts about financier Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee to be treasury secretary. Mnuchin, who has never held public office, has questions to answer about his California firm’s activities related to the 2009 housing market collapse, said Warner, who will participate in his Senate hearing.