Senate Democrats suggest the appointments project the values of the new president, who anchored his campaign around bipartisan platitudes and pledged to rely on experts. “So he is picking people who can get bipartisan support. He’s picking people who are wildly qualified,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
Republicans note that the rules for presidential appointments, eliminating a 60-vote hurdle to end debate, make confirmation a fairly basic task, even in a 50-50 Senate.
“If every Democrat holds and then the vice president breaks the tie, then President Biden should be able to get 100 percent of his Cabinet,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said.
Still, Biden’s selections are getting more support than Donald Trump’s nominees received four years ago, when his party held a 52-to-48 edge in the Senate.
According to a Washington Post analysis, Biden’s picks for the first 12 Cabinet-level positions to be approved have won confirmation with an average of almost 61 votes, three more than the margin Trump’s first crop of Cabinet-level nominees received for the same positions.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has voted for every Cabinet nominee so far, said Republicans have a less bitter feeling than Democrats did when Trump stunned the world with his upset victory in 2016.
“I think most Republicans believe that a president should be able to assemble the Cabinet of his choice, unless the person is outside of the mainstream or unqualified or lacks integrity. That wasn’t the standard that some Democrats applied to President Trump’s nominees,” Collins said.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, confirmed Monday with 64 votes, won the support of 14 Republicans. His predecessor, Betsy DeVos, had no Democratic support and lost two GOP senators, needing a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence to win confirmation.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, confirmed Tuesday with 84 votes, received backing from 43 Republicans, while her predecessor, Wilbur Ross, had just 21 Democrats support his confirmation four years ago.
Those two votes flew under the radar as Washington was riveted by Biden’s first defeat, when Neera Tanden withdrew her bid to be director of the Office of Management and Budget amid opposition from a unified Republican front and at least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.).
Tanden, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton, had become a partisan firebrand the past four years through her Twitter feed, and her nomination turned into a post-Trump morality tale of her social media misdeeds.
But most new administrations have suffered more turbulence than has Biden. Trump withdrew his first choice for labor secretary amid controversy over the nominee’s employment of an undocumented worker. By this stage in 2009, Barack Obama had submitted his third choice for commerce secretary and had pulled back the nomination of Thomas A. Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, for secretary of health and human services, in a tax scandal.
George W. Bush took two tries to find a labor secretary in 2001, settling on Elaine Chao, wife of now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Biden’s advisers credit their relatively smooth sailing to outreach to key senators, including Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who considered providing the key 50th vote for Tanden and then supported Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for interior secretary, despite opposition in her home state from the energy industry.
“Close engagement with senators and advocacy groups has been at the heart of his effort to earn confirmations, and that has started immediately and been sustained after each nominee is announced,” said Andrew Bates, spokesman for the presidential transition.
The confirmation process is the slowest in modern history, based in large part because of Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the November election. That delayed the traditional transition process and helped spark the Jan. 6 riot by his supporters at the Capitol, leading to an impeachment trial in the Senate that sucked up valuable floor time.
Cabinet nominations used to be somewhat mundane, but after Senate Democrats defeated George H.W. Bush’s selection of John Tower in 1989 for defense secretary, each opposition party has sought to knock off a few of the new president’s choices.
The Senate historical site maintains records for the traditional Cabinet posts for each administration, excluding jobs considered Cabinet-level such as OMB director and ambassador to the United Nations. Reagan was the last to confirm each of his initial secretary choices, when there were 13 departments.
Trump and Biden are the first to start Cabinets in the era of a simple majority ending debate and winning confirmation, after a rules change initiated by Democrats in 2013.
Murphy pointed to Trump’s selection of Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and DeVos, who funded many school-choice campaigns before taking over the Education Department, as intentionally trying to inflame Democrats.
“By and large, Biden has been picking people who make it hard for Republicans to oppose with a straight face,” he said.
Trump did have several nominees who received overwhelming support — Jim Mattis for defense (98 votes), Chao for transportation (93) and John Kelly for homeland security (88) — but six of his first picks for the 15 traditional Cabinet slots received fewer than 60 votes.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, with 56 votes, is the only Biden selection in that territory.
Of the remaining five picks for those Cabinet spots, each already has received public GOP support. Only Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, is likely to face a narrow vote on his nomination for secretary of health and human services.
Collins, who opposed Tanden, has an open mind on Becerra, who has been listening closely to her push to get federal safety guidelines that will allow more schools to open. “I have had several very good conversations with him about my concerns for schools,” she said.
But Barrasso pointed to the Haaland nomination and how the drama evaporated before Collins and Murkowski announced their support, suggesting this would play out on other choices.
It all comes down to one senator who plays a pivotal swing role in this 50-50 Senate.
“When Joe Manchin III says yes,” Barrasso said of the West Virginia Democrat, “you know that she is going to get through.”