(CNN)A key committee in the Senate on Tuesday worked to push forward President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Election Commission — in what could be the first step in confronting the paralysis that has gripped the nation’s top election watchdog.
The FEC lost its power to enforce campaign-finance laws a little more than six months ago when long-time commissioner Matthew Petersen resigned, leaving just three members on the six-member panel. Federal law requires the votes of four or more commissioners to approve new rules or take major enforcement actions to punish those who violate election law.
The vacancies have left the agency hobbled in an election year in which the threat of foreign influence looms and candidates, political parties and outside groups are poised to spend billions of dollars to shape the outcome of presidential and congressional contests.
Of the three members still on the commission, one is a Republican, one is a Democrat and the third is an independent who has often sided with Democrats during his tenure. All are serving expired terms.
On Tuesday, Trainor told lawmakers he “will approach everyone who comes before the commission objectively.”
Even before the current crisis, the agency had been divided by political infighting. More than a third of votes on enforcement actions taken by the FEC last year deadlocked along partisan lines — up from roughly 16% a decade earlier, according to an analysis by Public Citizen, an advocacy group that favors stricter campaign-finance regulations.
One sign of the high-profile attention to Trainor’s nomination: The Senate’s top Democrat and Republican both made rare appearances at the Rules committee hearing Tuesday.
“I agree with my colleagues that we need to work towards ending this freeze,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said of the FEC’s paralysis. “But I reject the notion that we must rush to confirm just anybody to the post.”
Democrats on the panel also sharply criticized the White House and Republicans for not advancing a bipartisan pair of nominees. To date, Trump has not nominated the Democrats’ pick to fill a vacancy on the commission. The White House did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the Democrats’ choice.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has opposed federal efforts to rein in political spending, said a Senate vote to confirm Trainor would restore “an even balance” between Republicans and Democrats on the commission for now.
McConnell offered a permanent solution: replace the full six-member slate of commissioners “to bring new energy, build new relationships and inject some new perspective” at the agency.
Trainor, a conservative Texas lawyer who advised the President’s 2016 campaign, was first nominated to the FEC post in 2017 but has faced repeated questions about his positions, including his stance on the public disclosure of campaign donations.
As the lawyer representing a politically active nonprofit in Texas, he fought efforts by the Texas Ethics Commission to unmask the group’s donors.
In the past, he also has made the case that voters could be influenced by who pays for a political message, rather than the content of the message, if donors are disclosed. As an example, he has argued that the Federalist Papers helped drive support to ratify the Constitution because the Founding Fathers who wrote them did so using a pseudonym.
“They wanted the effectiveness of their ideas to win, not who was saying it, to win the arguments,” Trainor said during a 2017 appearance on a Webcast, first reported by The Washington Post.
Under questioning Tuesday, Trainor said, as a commissioner, he would “follow the dictates” of the courts, which have generally ruled in favor of disclosing political donors’ identities.
Trainor also told senators he would not automatically recuse himself from FEC matters involving Trump, despite his 2016 work on behalf of the President’s campaign. Instead, he said, “I can commit that I will have a conversation with the ethics adviser at the commission and take the appropriate steps should a recusal be necessary.”
The Rules panel has not yet set a date to vote on Trainor.