Biden faces uncertain outlook for quick confirmation of Cabinet nominees as some Republicans urge caution
Posted December 22, 2020 5:54 p.m. EST
CNN — President-elect Joe Biden has been moving swiftly to fill out much of his Cabinet. Whether the Senate will do the same is another question.
Biden faces the tricky task of navigating a narrowly divided Senate with competing factions within his own party, calls by conservative senators to bring the nomination process to a slow grind -- all with the added complication of the hotly contested Georgia runoff races making it impossible for the Senate to formally organize until the outcome is clear.
Moreover, some Republican senators have little interest in beginning the confirmation process in January with President Donald Trump refusing to concede the race, meaning Biden could have a difficult time getting some nominees confirmed on his first day on the job, as has been customary for his predecessors.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said "all of these nominees ought to receive hard vetting -- every single one of them."
"I will just say to Republicans: Good luck explaining to your voters if you fast-track nominees for somebody who isn't even President," Hawley told CNN. "I mean, Joe Biden has not been sworn in. Good luck explaining that."
While Biden's picks have quietly been holding courtesy meetings over Zoom with GOP and Democratic senators, a number Senate committees have done little so far to prepare for imminent confirmation hearings as members wait for the Georgia runoffs to make it clear which party will be in charge for the next two years. But if the Georgia races remain too close to call for days, or even weeks, it could further delay confirmation hearings.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was non-committal when asked if he'd have confirmation hearings before January 20 for Avril Haines to serve as director of national intelligence.
"First of all, we don't know who's going to be in the majority," Rubio said. "We got to wait till Georgia before we make decisions about that."
Moreover, Trump's refusal to concede the race continues to put Senate Republicans in an awkward spot, with many unwilling to break ranks with the President and his futile attempts to overturn the will of the voters. Republicans are bound to be divided about whether they should greenlight confirmation hearings in January before Inauguration Day.
Asked if he'd be willing to see nominees confirmed by January 20, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said: "If they've got controversial appointees, they're going to have a problem with it. ... I'm only going to be interested in holding people up that have some real controversial views that maybe we should be waiting to confirm."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his leadership team have indicated a Republican-led Senate would indeed schedule floor votes for Biden's nominees, but how fast they move is another question altogether.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune said Monday that "there would be an attempt" on some of the national security appointments "to move those quickly to make sure there's no lapse there."
But asked if they'd be confirmed by the inauguration, Thune was less clear.
"That will depend on the will of our conference and individual committee leadership and kind of the nominees that they send up," Thune told CNN.
What happened in 2017
On inauguration day 2017, Trump won Senate confirmation for two of his nominees -- for defense and homeland security -- while President Barack Obama got six of his nominees confirmed the day he was sworn in, and President George W. Bush saw seven of his picks get Senate approval when he took office two decades ago.
But it's an open question whether that will happen for Biden, including for his national security officials, like retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon, who has been greeted warmly by some influential Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. There are active discussions about holding his confirmation hearings during the week before Biden's inauguration, but doing that could provoke a backlash on the right.
"Terrible idea," Hawley said of confirming Austin on the first day of the Biden administration. "I would never support that."
It remains to be seen which nominees will get quick consideration, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate. Some, like Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen, have been embraced by both parties. She has the backing of the potential next Banking Committee chairman, Pat Toomey.
Others like Antony Blinken to lead the State Department have received mixed reviews among the GOP, with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch privately indicating to Democrats that he's willing to consider his nomination early in the new year but making no commitments publicly or privately.
Others like Neera Tanden, Biden's pick for White House budget director, have received sharp GOP pushback. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has also been greeted skeptically among Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn, who called the former California congressman "a radical."
Some nominees who have received GOP support have gotten an icy reception from certain Democrats, like Biden's pick for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack.
"We've had our fair share of fights," said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who had been lobbying for former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to get the nod for the department. Noting his concerns about the consolidation of the agriculture industry, Tester said of the Vilsack pick: "It wouldn't have been my choice."
And whether Biden's national security team -- Austin and Haines as well as Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the ambassador to the United Nations and Alejandro Mayorkas to the Department of Homeland Security -- move quickly through the nominating process remains an open question as well.
Johnson, who now chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs but will step aside from that spot in the next Congress, said he spoke with Mayorkas by phone recently. But he's skeptical about the choice.
"I'm a little concerned about some of his stances on some of the regulations, some of the laws that will create incentive for more illegal immigration," said Johnson, who will remain a senior member on the committee next year.
Some of Biden's picks have had positive encounters with GOP senators, like Haines, who met over Zoom with Cornyn this month.
"She certainly seems like a very talented person, very smart," Cornyn said. "I asked her about her consulting agreements and I said for me, transparency was absolutely required, and I didn't want people working in sensitive national security positions that had been working for our adversaries and that would bring conflicts of interest. So I think she tried to assure me that that was not the case for her."
Asked if nominees should be confirmed by Inauguration Day, Cornyn said: "I don't think there should be any unnecessary delay."
Rubio had yet to speak with Haines and said: "I don't really know about her. ... She'll be treated like any other nomination."
Rubio, who also sits on Senate Foreign Relations, also offered little opinion about Blinken and Thomas-Greenfield.
"Those aren't the people I would pick, but I'm not the president, so when those nominations come before us, we'll review the file, we'll ask the questions, and we'll make decisions on that basis," he said.
Risch has refused to comment about those nominations that are slated to come before his committee. But the top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Bob Menendez, said Risch seems open to moving on the Blinken nomination early in the new Congress.
"I think he understands and agrees that it's one of the key national security positions that we should get to early," said Menendez after speaking with Risch. "I don't have a confirmed commitment from him exactly when, but my sense, of all the things we have to deal with, that he's well-disposed to get to this earlier than not."
Potential Pentagon worries
One of the biggest questions is facing Austin, whose nomination is further complicated because Congress would need to grant him a waiver to serve as the top civilian leader in the department since he retired in 2016. The law requires a former member of the military to be out of uniform for seven years before being able to be confirmed for that position, something that's only been waived twice before -- including for James Mattis to serve as Trump's defense secretary in 2017.
Many Democrats are squeamish about granting the waiver, but Austin has been privately lobbing Democrats and even told the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Adam Smith, that he'd be willing to testify in public to reassure skeptics about his belief in civilian control of the military.
"He is an extremely easy case, and a complicated case," said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Easy in the sense, of course he's qualified to be Secretary of Defense. ... It's complicated because this waiver issue is not a minor thing. It's not a technicality. We take it very seriously. We were really reluctant to do it for Mattis, even under extreme circumstances that don't apply to the situation right now."
Kaine said that he spoke with Austin, who indicated to him how critical it is to rebuild the leadership team at the Pentagon and restore morale in the department.
"He believes he can do that," Kaine said.
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN that he and the top Democrat on the committee, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, are considering January 14 to hold two hearings for Austin to be secretary of defense. One would be to examine the issue of whether to grant the waiver, while the second would be the actual confirmation hearing.
Asked if he was his goal to have Austin confirmed by Inauguration Day, Inhofe said: "That's not my goal. It maybe others. I just think we think we ought to go ahead and to it and get that part done."
Inhofe said he opposes the seven-year restriction for anyone to serve as defense secretary.
"You want to get the best person. It never made sense to me," he said.
Several other top Republicans seem open to Biden's other picks, including Pete Buttigieg, who is Biden's nominee to head the Transportation Department.
"He's certainly articulate, thoughtful and works well with others," said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, was open to Biden's pick of former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough to lead the Veterans Affairs Department.
"There is great importance at VA of having someone who has management capabilities, and certainly someday can carry weigh in the administration," Moran said, adding that McDonough may fit that bill.
The biggest decision left for Biden is who he may choose for attorney general.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who if the Republicans hold the majority next Congress may return to his post as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refused to say when he would hold confirmation hearings for an attorney general nominee.
"I'm not really answering any questions on that until I find out if we're in the majority," Grassley said. "No Republican chairman's gonna make a decision until we know what the status is. So it's kind of a caucus decision not to talk about nominations until we get that firmed up."
But Republicans have a clear favorite: Doug Jones, the outgoing Alabama Democratic senator who is on Biden's short list to head the Justice Department.
"Doug would sail through," said Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.