After Tanden withdrawal, Biden nominees slowly roll on toward confirmation

Becerra, Garland among nominees ready for the Senate floor

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services,  is among the nominees awaiting confirmation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, is among the nominees awaiting confirmation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 4, 2021 at 5:00am

Even with Tuesday night’s withdrawal of Neera Tanden’s nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the Senate is still generally showing deference to President Joe Biden’s prerogative to name his Cabinet.

Still, it’s taking longer than other presidents have had to wait, historically. Four years ago, the Senate had confirmed both Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development secretary and Rick Perry as Energy secretary on March 2, leaving only Sonny Perdue awaiting confirmation as Agriculture secretary among President Donald Trump’s initial picks for core Cabinet positions.

Biden still has a handful of those 15 slots awaiting confirmation, although none appears to have sufficient opposition to sink them.

Senate records use a more narrow technical definition of the Cabinet than the positions designated Cabinet-level by the president, which also include roles like the director of national intelligence and the OMB director. So while Tanden’s withdrawal is not captured in the statistics, neither is the speedy confirmation of Avril Haines, who was confirmed as DNI on Jan. 20 (as opposed to Trump’s first intelligence director, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who didn’t win confirmation until the Ides of March).

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has needed to file cloture to limit debate on even some of the least controversial Biden nominees, like Cecilia Rouse to lead the Council of Economic Advisers and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be U.N. ambassador. Even when there was no need for a debate-limiting vote (like with Tom Vilsack’s confirmation to return to the Department of Agriculture), there have been delays prior to confirmation.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the transition operation, suggested in a statement this week that there are, in fact, objections from some senators.

“[N]ominees with strong bipartisan support, and who are critical to defeating the pandemic and turning our economy around with the creation of millions of jobs, remain needlessly obstructed by individual members,” Bates said. “That must change.”

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said last week that in his view there has not been significant delay.

“When President Trump got into office they just basically objected to everything, even the noncontroversial people,” Cornyn said of Senate Democrats. “I don't feel like we’re intentionally delaying his confirmations. I think they’re being processed at a pretty good clip. They made a decision to spend [the] early part of President Biden’s term on impeaching President Trump so they kind of made some choices, which dictated the schedule.”

Many of the delays in the confirmation process can be attributed to the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the subsequent Trump impeachment and trial. The White House has also previously expressed concern about complications in getting up to speed that were tied to the delay in getting the transition team in place. In addition, of course, Senate control was an open question until after the two January runoffs in Georgia that gave Democrats a majority on a tie vote.

After Tanden’s withdrawal, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the White House understood that different nominees would get different levels of support.

“We don’t believe — and any member of the Senate can tell you this, or I’m sure they will tell you this — that they look at each nomination and whether they’re going to vote to support and confirm a nominee on an individual basis,” Psaki said Wednesday.

At this point in the Trump administration, the Labor secretary position was still vacant, with Andrew Puzder’s nomination to the post being withdrawn at the end of February.

Aside from Tanden, there are no signs of any of Biden’s nominees to the Cabinet or other key Cabinet-level positions being in actual jeopardy.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced her support for New Mexico Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland to be Interior secretary on Wednesday morning, ensuring bipartisan support. And attorney general nominee Merrick Garland is having a far different experience than when President Barack Obama nominated him for a Supreme Court vacancy, this time sailing through the Judiciary Committee on a 15-7 vote.

“While we certainly have different views on some issues, her role in helping to shepherd the Great American Outdoors Act through the House will be beneficial to the Department’s implementation of this landmark conservation law, which I cosponsored,” Collins said in a statement. “I also appreciate Representative Haaland’s willingness to support issues important to the State of Maine, such as Acadia National Park, as well as her deep knowledge of tribal issues, which has earned her the support of tribes across the country, including those in Maine.”

Haaland’s nomination is expected to be reported out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.

Even as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is the president’s nominee to lead Health and Human Services and has been a top target of outside groups, got through the Senate Finance Committee on a party-line tie vote, some GOP senators opposing his nomination seemed to be preparing for his confirmation.

“Being HHS Secretary should not be a learn-on-the-job position. And I’m afraid that Mr. Becerra will be very dependent upon advisers,” said Louisiana GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy. “I will cooperate with him and work with him. But we shouldn’t have the pretense that this person has the qualifications of someone with a different background.”

There appeared to be an objection to quickly scheduling a vote to confirm Garland, but Senate Majority Whip and Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said he did not know which GOP senator was behind it.

Neither Garland nor Becerra is likely to reach the Senate floor this week, with Biden and Schumer both needing to prioritize the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation measure and its associated marathon session of voting that could run overnight Thursday or Friday, rather than the nominations calendar.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.