The Senate’s new Dr. No

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Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO) <i>Jeff Roberson/AP</i>

The Senate’s new Dr. No

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With a 51-49 majority, Senate Democrats have the raw numbers to push through President Joe Biden’s nominees. But a pair of high-profile recent picks have failed, due in part to concerns first raised by Republican lawmakers led by freshman Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO).

Soon after taking his seat on Jan. 3, Schmitt became a vocal critic of Biden’s nomination for the head of the Federal Communications Commission, Gigi Sohn, and Phil Washington, who was nominated to lead the Federal Aviation Administration. Both pulled out after facing strong opposition on Capitol Hill, which included a unified Senate Republican Conference, but also some Democrats.

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As part of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Schmitt played a leading communications role in sinking both nominations. Schmitt, 47, tapped into political and legal skills honed over a seasoned political career, including eight years as a state senator, representing parts of central and western St. Louis County, followed by two years as Missouri’s treasurer and a four-year term as attorney general.

Tactics differed for each nomination fight. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee, including all Republicans and some Democratic members, already had their doubts about Sohn’s nomination. Biden first put her name forward in October 2021 to be a commissioner, which would have given Democratic-appointed members a 3-2 edge on the FCC and, crucially, the votes to reverse some FCC rules enacted during former President Donald Trump’s 2017-2021 White House tenure, such as the repeal of net neutrality.

Senate Republicans charged Sohn would censor conservative speech, and her nomination languished. At the start of the new Congress, Biden renominated Sohn, only to see the same criticisms emerge — this time with the Commerce Committee including Schmitt, who as Missouri attorney general had led a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the Biden administration alleging collusion with Big Tech to censor speech.

During Sohn’s Feb. 14 Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Schmitt pointedly queried her over what he called discrimination against conservatives by prominent tech companies. Schmitt asked Sohn point-blank if she thought “disinformation should be censored.”

Schmitt pressed Sohn further about ties between Big Tech companies and the nonprofit groups she had been affiliated with.

Sohn offered what turned out to be unconvincing answers, including those about her past criticisms of Republican elected officials and her work as an FCC adviser when Democratic appointees last held the majority there.

The back-and-forth between Schmitt and Sohn proved to be a turning point of sorts, making clear she didn’t have the votes to clear the committee and get a full Senate floor vote. Sohn withdrew from consideration on March 7.

“Gigi Sohn was a terrible pick to be an FCC commissioner. We were able to kind of conduct that sort of oversight, ask tough questions, and she’s not moving forward,” Schmitt told the Washington Examiner.

“If you’re examining the right sort of things and conducting oversight, people are persuadable on these things, especially on the nomination front,” Schmitt said. “That is how we are getting the oversight work done.”

In the case of Washington’s nomination to head the FAA, Senate Commerce Committee Republicans pressed down on his qualifications, or lack thereof, to head the aviation agency. The Denver International Airport CEO was nominated by Biden in July 2022 and quickly drew GOP criticism over his slim credentials in aviation safety and potential legal entanglements.

Schmitt, for his part, bore in on Washington’s past statements about what the nominee called hiring practices related to diversity and inclusion at the expense of merit.

Schmitt, at a March 2 committee hearing, said Missourians didn’t want “social cultural merits” to enter into aviation decision-making.

“Your track record seems to indicate that you’re … in line with this prioritization of diversity, equity, inclusion, climate change over safety, and that is very concerning to me,” the Missouri senator said.

Facing an uncertain political future, three weeks later, Washington withdrew his nomination.

New digs

Schmitt is one of seven freshmen who took office just after the turn of the year, six of them Republicans. The lone Democrat, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, has another distinction over the 6-foot-6-inch Schmitt, towering over his Missouri Republican colleague by 2 inches at 6 feet, 8 inches.

And while Schmitt has begun to make a name for himself in committee hearings, he continues to settle into his new role. Navigating the halls of Congress isn’t easy, Schmitt said.

“Let’s just say it’s taken me a little while to figure out how to get from here to there,” he said with a laugh during the interview. “From here to the chamber, we’ve got down pretty well, but still some of the office buildings and committee rooms — it’s good to have people who have been around this place for a little while guiding you along.”

Schmitt got to the Senate by winning a crowded 2022 Republican Senate primary. He bested, among others, former Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO), who resigned amid scandal but remade himself as an uber-Trumpy MAGA acolyte of the former president, along with then-Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long. In November, Schmitt easily dispatched beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine, the Democratic Senate nominee.

Now a typical day when the Senate is in session consists of Schmitt shuffling from one committee hearing to another. Recently, the Commerce Committee heard testimony from the CEO of Norfolk Southern and other stakeholders in the wake of February’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

His responsibility as a member of the committee is one he doesn’t take lightly.

“There is a very important role for every member to play on that committee, whether they are in the majority or the minority,” Schmitt said. “So that’s what we are focused on, and just doing everything we can to try and take some of those skills as attorney general, we can really dig into things and ask important, tough questions.”

Schmitt, who campaigned on conducting fierce oversight of the Biden administration, said he’s able to do that, even though Democrats have a clear Senate majority compared to the last Congress, when Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote gave Democrats the slimmest possible majority in the 50-50 chamber.

And in a chamber where seniority counts, Schmitt is confronting the realities of what it means to be a freshman lawmaker. For one, the senator is operating in a temporary office in the basement of the Russell Senate office building.

Schmitt’s low standing in Senate seniority also was front-and-center during the committee selection process. He was denied a waiver when he sought a coveted spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which (among other roles) considers federal judicial nominations from the Supreme Court on down. Schmitt would have needed a waiver since the Senate Republican Conference does not allow senators from the same state to be members of a committee together, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) already has a spot on Judiciary.

Schmitt admits he had conversations with some of his fellow Republican colleagues to see if they’d be willing to give up their spots on the panel. But he disputes reports that the discussions ruffled feathers or offended them.

“I talked to individual senators about it. Everything was really respectful. People came up to me afterward and appreciated how I handled it, and it just was never personal,” Schmitt said. “Look, this was a skill set I had and a job I had, and Judiciary was a good fit. But I understand there’s seniority in the Senate, and when you lose a seat, it’s one of those things that sort of happens now that we are no longer 50-50. But I’m thrilled with the committee assignments I have.”

Endorsing Trump

Schmitt now represents a state in the Senate where Trump beat President Joe Biden 57% to 41% in 2020 despite losing the White House after one term. The senator is making a name for himself on Capitol Hill as a fierce defender of Trump, a longtime target of Democratic hatred who, after being indicted in New York by a grand jury at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s request, is the first former president to face legal charges.

Schmitt is among five Republican senators who have already pledged their support for Trump’s 2024 presidential bid when the Florida resident is trying to become the first chief executive to hold the White House in nonconsecutive terms since President Grover Cleveland returned to Washington in 1893. Even though Trump faced more than 30 counts related to business fraud in an indictment, Schmitt rushed to Trump’s defense, and his reaction following the latest developments is largely the same.

“This is a purely partisan case against President Trump, plain and simple. … This is a political prosecution in search of a crime, and sets an extremely dangerous precedent going forward,” he said in a statement, his comments almost mirroring exactly what he said during an interview nearly a week prior.

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Schmitt said a major reason he decided to run for office was to be a voice for those like his son, Stephen, who has epilepsy and tuberous sclerosis and has also been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In the past, Schmitt has advocated in support of Missouri legislation that would allow cannabidiol, a cannabis extract, to be used to treat epilepsy patients. The senator said he hopes he’ll be able to do more on the federal level.

“It has been an inspiration for me to want to do more and serve, and public service has been a way to do it,” Schmitt said. “Certainly, we are going to work on some of these issues that affect individuals with disabilities, no doubt about that.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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