WASHINGTON – Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent progressive from Vermont, has become a candidate for Secretary of Labor in the administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., a prospect that would suit his ambitions to be a warrior for American workers – and one that makes some Republicans in the Senate very concerned.
“I think he’s someone we know to be an ideologue and, well, it would be very unlikely that he would be confirmed in a Republican Senate,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the Many Republicans who said Mr. Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, would likely not win House approval.
It’s a testament to the deterioration of the Senate confirmation process that a longtime colleague – even one they vehemently oppose politically – would face such a Republican roadblock. In the not too distant past, fellow senators had considerable leeway on the part of the opposing party if they were chosen to join the executive branch.
“The truth is, to my knowledge, there has been a courtesy in the Senate that when a president appoints senators, they have been approved,” Sanders said in an interview.
The growing senatorial resistance to Mr Sanders even before any formal action by the new administration reflects the formidable task facing Mr Biden. If Republicans retained their majority in the Senate next year, Mr. Biden would be the first president since George Bush in 1989 to take office without his party controlling the chamber and handling the confirmation process. And this process has become much more toxic, to the point where senators regularly engage in near-total opposition to the choices of a president of the opposite party – if they allow consideration at all.
“It’s kind of uncharted waters,” said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, presidential historian and author of a book on George Washington’s cabinet. “For most of history, the Senate has given a strong prominence to presidents, especially first-term presidents. They usually give the president what they want.
It is not a certainty today. Some Republicans, who must win at least one of two Senate second-round elections in Georgia on January 5 to hold their slim majority, have already made it clear that they do not want to give Mr Biden much leeway in this matter. which concerns the candidates. They note the efforts Democrats have made over the past four years to block President Trump’s choices and to force Republicans to overcome any time-consuming procedural hurdles, even when the end result was inevitable.
“I can assure you that there won’t be one set of rules for Donald Trump and, if Joe Biden takes office, another set of rules for him,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton said this week. ‘Arkansas, on the Hugh radio show. Hewitt, a conservative host. “What the Democrats have done over the past four years, if it’s good for the goose, it’s going to be good for the eyes too.”
Other Republicans – including Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have indicated they would be prepared to support Mr. Biden’s choices as long as they are seen as traditional, recognizing that a Democratic president is entitled to selections. that correspond to his views.
They and other Republicans say potential candidates who could meet this test include Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat from Alabama who lost his reelection bid this month; Anthony Blinken, longtime foreign policy adviser to Biden; and Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and confidant of Biden.
But the general attitude appears to be one of skepticism, and Republican senators have signaled that rather than feeling pressured to give the president his squad, they believe it is Mr. Biden squarely onus to find candidates who can pass. with them. Besides Mr. Sanders, Republicans have also indicated they would disapprove of the appointments of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama.
It’s not just the best locations that are at stake. The Senate must also confirm the scores of other executive candidates for lower-level positions that are critical to running sprawling agencies.
If Republicans hold their own, it will be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader who refused to even consider Mr. Obama’s Supreme Court candidate in 2016, to put the nominations on the floor. He is not the type to act without the widespread support of Republican senators and party voters.
The presidential transition
“I hope McConnell wouldn’t put down someone who has strong opposition in the Republican caucus and with the Republican base,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama.
Only nine cabinet candidates were rejected by the Senate, while another 15 were withdrawn when looming confirmation issues emerged. Among the notorious defeats was John Tower, the choice of Mr. Bush for the post of Secretary of Defense, whose appointment fell through the hands of his former Senate colleagues, who cited character flaws. He was the last cabinet candidate to be defeated outright and the first former senator to be defeated.
Despite these rare exceptions, the best presidential picks have historically won fairly easy and quick approval as new administrations took shape and lawmakers wanted to ensure continuity of government, sometimes confirming cabinet secretaries with a unanimous agreement without a vote. As recently as Mr. Obama’s first term starting in 2009, several candidates were approved by voice vote on his inauguration day. Hillary Clinton was confirmed as Secretary of State by a 94-2 vote on Mr. Obama’s first full day as president.
But the process has become increasingly ugly, with partisanship increasing over the past decade. Much of the focus has been on judicial appointments and their life tenure, but executive branch jobs have also been caught in the crossfire. After taking control of the Senate in 2015, Republicans slowed down some Obama candidates for leadership and ambassadorial positions and reluctantly allowed a 56-43 vote of approval for Loretta Lynch as attorney general after months of delay and debate.
Still simmering on the Republican decision to block the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Merrick B. Garland in 2016 and to try many of Mr. Trump’s unqualified and unfit candidates, Senate Democrats have raised the barriers that ‘they could to register their objections.
During the Democratic presidential primary, Senate candidates proudly highlighted the number of Trump administration candidates they had opposed. Likewise, Senate Republicans voting in 2022 or considering running for president in 2024 might be reluctant to be seen as overly cooperative with the Biden administration for fear of angering supporters or inciting primary opposition. .
Transition officials Biden say they are optimistic that the caliber of the new president’s choices, his own knowledge of the Senate, and the need to deal with the coronavirus pandemic will help them push his choices forward in the polarized chamber.
“Its nominees will be experienced, capable and ready to go on day one,” said Kate Bedingfield, a spokesperson for the transition. “The American people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket in historic numbers, and they expect the Senate to allow the president-elect to build the skilled team he needs to fight this virus and put the economy back on track. rails. “
They also say they are under no illusions about the potential difficulties ahead. They are building a powerful team to garner public support for their candidates, although Judge Garland’s case has shown that Republicans do not easily succumb to such pressure.
Some Democrats and their progressive allies say that if Mr. Biden is upset over personnel matters, he should bypass the Senate and appoint acting agency heads, as Mr. Trump has often done, or use his power to install appointees when Congress is on vacation. But Supreme Court and Senate procedures have combined to drastically reduce the possibilities for suspended appointments, and acting officials do not carry the same weight as those confirmed by the Senate.
Members of the new administration and Senate Democrats would much prefer Mr. Biden’s picks to receive the full Senate seal of approval, and that includes all Democratic senators proposed for cabinet positions if Mr. Biden decides to proceed in that direction.
“I hope and expect that there are at least a number of Republican senators who understand that it is the prerogative of the incumbent president to nominate candidates of his liking,” Sanders said. . “And that they would respect that.”