In a GOP Senate, Biden’s Cabinet faces a gantlet

Democratic opposition to Trump’s picks still a sore point for Republicans

If Republicans led by Mitch McConnell keep the Senate, Joe Biden would be the first Democratic president to take office without his party in control of the chamber.  (Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call and Alex Wong/Getty Images. Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
If Republicans led by Mitch McConnell keep the Senate, Joe Biden would be the first Democratic president to take office without his party in control of the chamber. (Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call and Alex Wong/Getty Images. Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 14, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Democrats are worried that President Joe Biden will struggle to get his Cabinet in place after Inauguration Day.

They have reason to be, if they don’t win both Georgia Senate seats up for grabs in runoff elections on Jan. 5. If Republicans win at least one of the two, Biden will be the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland to take office without a Senate controlled by his party.

And that milestone would come at an unfortunate time for Biden, as it would coincide with a moment of intense partisanship on confirmation votes. It’s unlikely Republicans would block all or most of Biden’s Cabinet picks, though they could if they win at least one of the two Georgia seats. More likely, Biden can expect that at least a few of his nominees will be turned back, while others will have to run a gantlet of hearings and procedural votes before winning their place in the Cabinet.

“Biden says he wants unity, but his choices for cabinet positions say otherwise,” tweeted Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who’s blasted a number of Biden’s choices, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services secretary and Alejandro Mayorkas, who served in President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Department, as its new secretary.

Mike Rounds of South Dakota says the Senate won’t hurry to confirm Biden’s picks, while Kevin Cramer of North Dakota warns that Republican senators will take a lesson from Democrats’ vociferous opposition to President Donald Trump’s nominees.

Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer, who led the opposition to Trump’s nominees, has taken to the floor repeatedly in recent days to demand that confirmation hearings begin immediately after the Georgia runoffs and that the Senate begin confirming nominees soon thereafter. That, Schumer says, “is traditional for a new president” and only fitting, given the “exceptionally qualified slate of Cabinet nominees” Biden has named so far.

But Schumer is unlikely to get his wish, and Republicans will cite Democrats’ opposition to Trump’s first Cabinet in 2017 as the precedent to justify their opposition.

John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the Senate GOP conference, explained in a Dec. 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed that he and his colleagues are holding a grudge. Trump’s nominees “faced a bombardment of endless ‘questions for the record,’” he recalled. “Democrats voted en bloc against nominees in committee. They consistently refused to consent to routine floor votes, forcing the use of the cloture procedure, then made sure to use every minute of the 30 hours of postcloture debate to delay the confirmation vote as long as they could.”

Loading the player...

Barrasso added: “Don’t expect Senate Republicans to forget how the Democrats treated Mr. Trump’s nominees.”

Schumer has cherry-picked the history of Trump’s nominees, noting that confirmation hearings for them began before his inauguration and that his first Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, won easy confirmation on Inauguration Day.

But Barrasso has a point. Of Trump’s nominees for the 15 principal Cabinet agencies, only five won confirmation with the full backing of the Democrats or nominal opposition — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Kelly, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Most Democrats opposed six other Trump appointees — Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Rick Perry at Energy, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, Ryan Zinke at Interior, Alex Acosta at Labor and Rex Tillerson at State.

Four Trump appointees got either no votes from Democrats — Betsy DeVos at Education and Tom Price at Health and Human Services — or just the vote of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III for Jeff Sessions at Justice and Steven Mnuchin at Treasury.

If Republicans win both Georgia Senate seats, Biden would need at least two Republicans to vote to confirm for his appointees to take their posts.

Schumer foresees the problem, and he’s making the case that this time is different because, in his view, Biden’s picks are well-qualified. By contrast, he says, Trump’s first picks were “manifestly unqualified, plagued by ethical complaints or swimming in conflicts of interest, sometimes all three.”

True or not, it’s hard to see how that argument will win over many Republicans, who are already expressing strong opposition to at least two of Biden’s early picks: Becerra and his nominee to lead the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. 

Swing votes

A GOP-controlled Senate could, theoretically, block most, or even all, of Biden’s choices. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could even refuse to bring them up for votes. That would be a significant escalation in the confirmation wars.

But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Consider how rapidly those wars escalated under Trump.

All of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet was seated either by unanimous vote, voice vote or unanimous consent, after his first choice for attorney general, Zoë Baird, withdrew. George W. Bush also saw one of his picks, Linda Chavez at Labor, withdraw.

But after that, 13 of the 15 cruised to easy confirmation. His choice to lead Interior, Gale Norton, faced significant Democratic opposition, and his first attorney general, John Ashcroft, got only eight Democratic votes.

Obama’s Cabinet faced a rockier road, but not nearly as rocky as Trump’s. Obama saw three nominees withdraw, Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg at Commerce, and Tom Daschle at Health and Human Services, but the Senate confirmed nine of his 15 Cabinet nominees by voice vote. (Obama kept George W. Bush’s Defense secretary, Robert Gates, and he did not require confirmation.)

Two others faced nominal opposition, Hillary Clinton at State and Hilda Solis at Labor, while most Republicans opposed his picks to lead HHS and Treasury, Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Geithner. 

None of the votes were close, however.

There will be close votes next year. If Republicans take Senate control, they’ll have either one or two votes to spare. It’s easy to foresee Maine’s Susan Collins and Utah’s Mitt Romney providing Biden the votes he will need, while Biden will also try to win over Republican Senate institutionalists up for reelection in 2022 such as Rob Portman of Ohio and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Schumer has stressed the institutionalist message, noting that Republican senators “lined up to confirm President Trump’s appointments, arguing that a president deserves his Cabinet.” He added that he expected the “same deference will be extended to President-elect Biden's nominees.”

It’s unlikely GOP institutionalists will be swayed by Schumer’s case. The New York Democrat has taken too many swipes at them, noting the “obvious gulf in quality, experience, and ethics” separating Biden’s picks from Trump’s.

And Republican senators will surely recall the unprecedented opposition some Democratic senators put up to Trump’s picks, starting with his Cabinet all the way through his administration. Several in the Democratic Conference made it a practice of almost always opposing Trump nominees to executive posts and federal judgeships. 

Six stood out: Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. They all posted presidential opposition scores — voting against Trump’s wishes on nominees and bills — more than 84 percent of the time during Trump’s four years in office. 

By contrast, no senator posted an opposition score above 70 percent during Obama’s eight years or George W. Bush’s.

But some GOP senators will also recall Democratic colleagues who stuck by the traditional practice of confirming nominees they saw as qualified without regard to political disagreements. Those included some likely suspects, such as Manchin, but some less likely ones too: Chris Coons and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Mark Warner of Virginia. 

All of them backed Trump nominees about half of the time. When Biden’s Cabinet has run the gantlet and won confirmation next year, the new president will have them to thank.