Nov 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

GOP Senate wins wreak havoc on Biden transition plans

Illustration of the Capitol Dome with falling bars and broken stars behind it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans' likely hold on the Senate is forcing Joe Biden's transition team to consider limiting its prospective Cabinet nominees to those who Mitch McConnell can live with, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: The new Senate political math could dash the ambitions of some Democrats, including those who have clashed with Republicans.

  • It could push Biden to go with more centrist options, like Lael Brainard for Treasury or Tony Blinken for State, sources tell Axios.
  • Susan Rice and Stacey Abrams could be early casualties, depending on McConnell's posture.
  • But it could also open paths for others, like Sen. Chris Coons, who could benefit from a tradition of senatorial courtesy for quick confirmations of nominees within its ranks.

A source close to McConnell tells Axios a Republican Senate would work with Biden on centrist nominees but no "radical progressives" or ones who are controversial with conservatives.

  • The Biden agenda would be severely restricted by GOP control, the source added: "It's going to be armed camps."

The state of play: The process is in its early stages as Biden officials await final numbers on the size of the majority, and any potential signals from McConnell about whether he'll fight every nominee or focus on one or two examples.

  • Traditionally, an incoming president is given wide berth to pick his desired team.

The big picture: This political reality could result in Biden having a more centrist Cabinet.

  • It also gives Biden a ready excuse to reject left-of-center candidates, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who have the enthusiastic backing of progressives.
  • Biden had already been considering an informal ban on nominating Democratic senators to avoid uncertainty about who would fill their seats.

Between the lines: Rice, who was Barack Obama's former UN ambassador and national security adviser, has long been considered in the running for secretary of state or another Cabinet position.

  • But she clashed with Republicans and became a lightning rod while defending the administration's response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
  • Biden vetted Rice for vice president, and she was projected as a top pick for State after being passed over for Kamala Harris.
  • “For those interested in facts, Ambassador Rice has twice been unanimously confirmed by the Senate,” said Erin Pelton, a Rice spokesperson, referring to two confirmations before the Benghazi controversy.

What we're hearing: Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, also faces a tough time being confirmed by a Republican Senate.

  • Sally Yates, who is under consideration for Attorney General, could face resistance because of her role in the Justice Department's investigation into Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn.
  • In August, Yates defended her role before Congress and accused Flynn of "neutering" American sanctions on Russia.

Be smart: Biden may end up leaning more on Democratic senators in blue states, or ex-senators.

  • That could boost Coons' case for State. And Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who lost on Tuesday, may have an easier time than Yates at Justice.
  • If Biden appoints Coons to State, Democrats wouldn't be down a seat in the Senate, as Delaware’s Democratic governor John Carney could quickly appoint Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester to the seat. That would ensure Senate Democrats have at least one Black woman in their ranks.
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