Dec 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden taunts GOP with Cabinet picks

Illustration of a suited hand poking an elephant with it’s finger
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden is daring Senate Republicans with Cabinet picks and nominees who have grated on the party but also have flaws that could now give the GOP an easy out for rejecting them.

Why it matters: Familiar faces like Denis McDonough, Tom Vilsack and Neera Tanden may be comfort food for the president-elect’s soul, but they're flashbacks to an era wherein Republicans sought to obstruct Democratic people and policies.

"They're likely to lose a significant number of Republican votes," said former Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire. "And depending on exactly how the Democrats in the Senate respond to the issues, and decide to vote themselves, these are nominees that could find themselves in trouble.”

  • Biden picked McDonough to be secretary of Veterans Affairs even though the former White House chief of staff has never served in the U.S. military.
  • Vilsack has been tapped for Agriculture secretary despite holding the job for both of President Obama's terms, and after most recently earning nearly $1 million a year heading a dairy advocacy group.
  • Tanden has been pegged for the Senate-confirmable post of director of the Office of Management and Budget without major governmental budgeting experience — and following eight years of caustic anti-Republican tweets.

Transition spokesperson Andrew Bates said, "President-elect Biden has announced tested, qualified nominees who can meet this moment of unrelenting crisis and are ready to hit the ground running on Day One, reach across the aisle and deliver immediate relief for the American people."

Sen. John Cornyn's communication director tweeted last week that Tanden "stands zero chance" of being confirmed. The Texas Republican himself told Axios' Alayna Treene: “I think it's a really a misstep by the administration."

Many individual Democratic constituencies also are unhappy with some of Biden's choices. That could spell collective trouble for him when a Cabinet that is supposed to “look like America“ is completed in the next couple weeks.

Black Democrats are upset Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was passed over for Agriculture and tapped for what some perceive as a token African American slot: secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

  • The Congressional Black Caucus had lobbied for Fudge to head Ag since the agency doesn’t just help farmers but devotes resources to programs providing food and other assistance to poor families.
  • The CBC now faces the prospect of a white man or woman heading the Justice Department amid talk Judge Merrick Garland, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) or former Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates are finalists for attorney general.

The president-elect also selected Lloyd Austin to serve as Defense secretary even though the retired general will require a waiver because he has not been out of the armed forces for seven years.

  • Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jon Tester of Montana — all Democrats — told The Hill they are opposed to granting the waiver. Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York also oppose it.

A source close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously told Axios the powerful Republican won't support any "radical progressives" for the Cabinet.

His true power, though, hangs on the outcome of two special elections in Georgia next month. If the GOP wins just one, it will give the party at least a 51-49 majority, just enough — theoretically — to dictate confirmation outcomes.

  • Two losses will result in a 50-50 split, empowering Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes in favor of Biden’s nominees.

Flashback: McConnell already showed with his recent Supreme Court strong-arming he isn’t afraid to act with impunity — so long as he has the votes to back it up.

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