Congress may be preoccupied with President Trump’s second impeachment, but President-elect Joe Biden’s team is busy preparing for potential Senate confirmation fights over his administration’s nominee-designates.
Biden’s transition has been touted as one of the most organized in modern presidential history since it was assembled last spring. But it’s fallen behind other transitions as Trump drew out the process, claiming electoral and voter fraud, and aides awaited the results of the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs, which only give Democrats control of the chamber once Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president.
But while Biden’s transition anticipated the runoffs would affect confirmations because they decided Senate control, staffers weren’t expecting they’d have to compete for time on the chamber’s floor with an impeachment trial.
Biden, though, is pressing on, despite Trump’s impeachment by the House Wednesday for inciting an insurrection. A week earlier, on Jan. 6, a mob of the president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building to stop the certification of Biden’s electors. Five people died in the chaos.
“We’ve done our job,” Biden told reporters last week after the Capitol attack. “It’s my expectation and hope that the Senate will now move to confirm these nominees promptly and fairly, as is especially the case for the nominees of secretary of state, defense, treasury, and homeland security. They should be confirmed as close to Jan. 20 as possible.”
But Biden is set to be inaugurated next Wednesday without any of his Cabinet picks in place amid a turbulent, unstable period for American democracy.
The Senate is currently in recess, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t reconvene the chamber before Tuesday as House Democrats haven’t postponed transmitting the impeachment article for trial. There had been talk of starting proceedings after Biden’s first 100 days.
That day, however, less than 24 hours before Biden’s swearing-in, at least four of his nominee-designates will have their confirmation hearings. Among them, incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defense secretary choice Lloyd Austin before the Senate Armed Services Committee, treasury secretary selection Janet Yellen before the Senate Finance Committee, and homeland security secretary pick Alejandro Mayorkas before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Director of national intelligence nominee-designate Avril Haines also has a confirmation hearing scheduled for Friday and incoming veterans affairs secretary Denis McDonough for Jan. 27.
But that timeline puts Biden behind his predecessors, according to Karen Hult, a Virginia Tech political science professor and transition scholar. During the last 28 years, for instance, the Senate has hosted pre-inaugural confirmation hearings for almost all of a new president’s Cabinet secretary nominee-designates, the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition found.
“The absence of confirmation hearings being held this close to the inauguration is virtually unprecedented in contemporary transitions,” Hult told the Washington Examiner. “That means that no Cabinet members likely will be confirmed during the new president’s first week in office.”
And after organizing roughly 175 meetings between Biden nominees and senators before Christmas, his transition has become frustrated with the delays. It’s pushing, in particular, national security-related nominee-designates, followed by those tapped for economic and health posts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The team is engaging with the current administration to gain as much information as possible on the threat picture, and on the preparations being put in place to deter and defend against violent disruptions or attacks,” the transition said in a statement.
It added, “This is why it is critical that President-elect Biden’s national security nominees receive swift hearings and confirmations, and the president-elect is pleased that the hearing for DHS Secretary-designate Alejandro Mayorkas has been moved forward.”
To put the issue in context, seven of former President Barack Obama’s nominees were confirmed on Jan. 20, 2009, as were Trump’s secretaries of defense and homeland security in 2017, Hult explained. In addition, 12 of former President Ronald Reagan’s nominees were confirmed in his first two days, as were 13 of Bill Clinton’s nominees and seven of George W. Bush’s.
Hult recognized that Biden had signaled he’ll install acting heads until permanent nominees are confirmed.
“Even so, this is an especially perilous time, with concerns about national and homeland security, the pandemic raging, and economic problems continuing,” she said. “The cyberattack, Iran’s just-announced efforts to begin work on manufacturing nuclear materials, and continuing threats on the nation’s and state capitals underscore the need to get high-ranking government officials in place.”
Confirming Biden’s picks will undoubtedly be easier now that Democrats control the Senate. In fact, he chose Merrick Garland as his attorney general because the chamber’s shift in power meant Garland could be replaced on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by a liberal judge. Republicans will not be able to filibuster the nominees under current Senate rules.
But Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus who advised former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, warned Biden’s confirmation “navigators” that the Senate would likely challenge “one or two cases” to remind them senators form “a co-equal branch of government.”
Hess believed, though, Biden’s nominees’ confirmations wouldn’t be “drawn out longer than in the past,” even with an impeachment trial. Senate Democrats have spoken about bifurcating their responsibilities, splitting their time between impeachment and regular business. The people Biden has tapped are “pretty experienced” unlike “the real outsiders that Trump brought in,” too, argued Hess, who’s written a book on transitions.
“The nominees, even down to the second and third level, have incredible backgrounds in government. That’s the difference. They’ve been there before,” he said. “It is a product of the fact that they’ve only been out of office for four years.”