Senate Republicans are signaling they will confirm most of President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks in January — a rare bright spot for a White House that may clash with a GOP majority for years to come.
Many Republicans won’t even publicly concede that Biden will be the next president while President Donald Trump fights to overturn the election results. But a critical mass of GOP senators said in interviews that Biden has the right to his Cabinet, indicating he may be able to staff his administration largely to his liking.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said that he believes a “president ought to be able to pick his or her Cabinet barring someone who is out of the mainstream of either party,” and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) gives “great latitude” to presidents to make appointments. Those two plus Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) give Biden a working majority on Cabinet picks, even if Democrats fall short in a pair of Georgia runoffs and the GOP holds a 52-48 majority.
“He’s our president-elect. All presidents have a right to their Cabinet,” Murkowski said. “Our job, our role is to make sure that he selects folks that are … within the mainstream. And are good, qualified credible candidates. And if he does that, sure, I am going to work with him.”
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Of course, Biden would have far greater flexibility to appoint progressive nominees if Democrats can win the Georgia races on Jan. 5 and control the Senate 50-50 after Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president. But short of that, avoiding a scorched-earth battle over nominations to start his presidency will be consolation for Biden.
Biden indicated the haggling will begin in days, telling reporters Thursday he will announce his Treasury secretary around Thanksgiving. He said it is a nominee who “will be accepted by all elements of the Democratic Party, from the progressive to the moderate coalitions.” He left out whether Republicans might find it acceptable.
The possibility of split control between the White House and Senate lacks much recent precedent. The last president to be ushered in alongside a Senate of the opposite party was George H.W. Bush, who followed a fellow Republican president and kept some of his predecessor’s Cabinet. The chamber was far less polarized then, but the Senate still rejected John Tower, Bush’s nominee for Defense secretary, showing how perilous the lack of Senate control can be for a new president.
As for Biden, pretty much everyone in the Senate acknowledges Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won’t be confirmed by a GOP Senate. But it’s certainly possible to envision someone like Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) or Doug Jones (D-Ala.) winning confirmation to roles like secretary of State or attorney general.
By POLITICO STAFF
Biden could also skirt the Senate and name his Cabinet nominees in an acting capacity, as Trump did repeatedly during his presidency. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see some nominees go down: Most administrations miss with at least one high-profile pick.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has warned a Republican-led Senate could mean an early constitutional crisis for Biden, said his fears have been eased somewhat.
“I’m less worried. I’ve had good conversations with my Republican colleagues about what the process might look like. I’m hopeful,” Murphy said. “I feel like there’s a critical mass there that believes in making sure the president gets a Cabinet. I feel like we might be able to work through this.”
Ultimately, the question of whether to give Biden’s nominees a floor vote is up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has enjoyed a solid working relationship with the former vice president in the past. Since the election, however, he has not spoken to Biden, nor has he deemed Biden the president-elect.
McConnell proved to be a one-man blockade for some of President Barack Obama’s appointments. He delayed the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch during a dispute over a human trafficking bill and simply ignored Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination and other judicial picks. But Romney said he presumes the GOP leader would put Biden’s Cabinet picks up for votes. McConnell declined to comment for this story.
Biden isn’t expressing any concern at the moment.
“President-elect Biden looks forward to working in good faith with both parties in Congress to install qualified, experienced leaders by Day One who are capable of saving lives from the pandemic, responding to urgent threats to our national security, and getting our economy back on track,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden.