Biden seeks swift Cabinet votes, but GOP Senate stays silent
WASHINGTON (AP) – When President-elect Joe Biden began introducing his administrative team, one voice was particularly silent: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senate Republicans will have a lot of leverage in approving or rejecting Biden’s cabinet candidates, regardless of which party controls the narrowly divided Senate after runoff elections. But key Republican senators, including the GOP leader, are silent for the time being, choosing their upcoming battles.
With the announcement of his national security team on Tuesday, Biden appealed to the Senate to give the candidates “an immediate hearing” and “begin work to heal and unite America and the world”.
The day the Senate would consider the nominations is Inauguration Day on January 20, when former presidents were often able to receive swift endorsement from top national security officials shortly after the oath of office.
With President Donald Trump still denying the election, McConnell sets the tone for Senate Republicans by not publicly congratulating Biden or recognizing Trump’s defeat. He wants to give the president time to challenge the vote, even though Trump’s legal team has lost most of the cases.
Even if McConnell is willing to accept Biden’s decisions for top cabinet positions, the Republican leader is not expected to allow simple Senate endorsement with no political price.
He’s known for hitting hard bargains even in routine business, and Republicans are eager to compensate Democrats for running out of time on procedural hurdles for Trump’s candidates.
The nominees require 51 votes for confirmation. As we head into 2021, Republicans have a 50-48 influence on the chamber. But if the Democrats won both Georgia seats in the January 5 runoff, they would take majority control as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a tie.
Republican strategist Alex Conant said McConnell was trying to “show some respect to Trump in the hope of promoting party unity” ahead of the Georgia elections.
The January outcome is sure to form a narrow Senate. If McConnell remains in control, it is unclear what priorities he would draw from the Biden administration in return for confirmation. When Democrats take control, they have no leeway for disagreement between more progressive or conservative flanks in approving Biden’s nominees.
Biden has deliberately attracted seasoned government officials to his national security team as he vows a diverse administration that reflects the nation.
Those unveiled on Tuesday are alumni of the Barack Obama administration and Biden’s own decades in Washington: Antony Blinken, who was named Secretary of State; Alejandro Mayorkas, a former Cuban-American federal attorney who would be the first immigrant to serve as homeland security secretary; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a professional diplomat, as Ambassador to the United Nations; and Avril Haines, who would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence.
He also announced John Kerry, former Secretary of State, Senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, as Special Envoy on Climate, and Jake Sullivan, a former top advisor to Hillary Clinton, as National Security Advisor. These two positions do not require confirmation by the Senate.
Biden is also expected to win Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chairwoman, as Treasury Secretary.
Some Republican senators, especially those being monitored for their own potential 2024 presidential offers, are turning against Biden’s team for changing their national security IDs.
Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Mocked Biden for choosing a team that “will only strengthen his instinct to be gentle with China”.
It is a quick issue among Republicans to be tough on China, which Trump confirms in being more confrontational about the economic and military powerhouse.
GOP Senator Marco Rubio, a 2016 presidential candidate, tweeted that Biden’s team is made up of Ivy League graduates who “will politely and properly see America’s downfall.”
Rubio said in a tweet, “I’m not interested in going back to the ‘normal’ that has made us dependent on China.”
Another potential beacon of hope for 2024, Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Tweeted on the Biden team, “What a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts.”
This week, however, the potential GOP chairs of the key committees that are expected to hold confirmation hearings for the nominees have been silent.
The centrist GOP senators Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Susan Collins from Maine also declined to weigh up. They are closely watched as they may aid Biden’s ability to assemble his team.
Mayorkas faces potentially toughest road to confirmation after narrowly confirmed as deputy homeland security secretary in a 2013 vote without GOP support.
At that point, he had been investigated by the Department Inspector General, who later discovered that Mayorkas, as director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, appeared to be granting special treatment to certain individuals under the Visa program.
Democrats “are busy” convincing Republican senators to back Mayorkas, said a Republican aide, who spoke on Tuesday on condition of anonymity to openly discuss the situation.
Blinking also faces hurdles. In 2014, only one Republican voted to confirm him as assistant secretary of state – former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.
However, others may have an easier way to confirm.
Thomas-Greenfield was confirmed twice in 2012 as Director General of the Foreign Service and in 2015 as Deputy State Secretary.
Yellen was confirmed twice with bilateral support, including serving as Fed chairman in 2014 with the support of three sitting Republican senators: Collins, Murkowski and Richard Burr of North Carolina.