Being nominated to serve in a presidential Cabinet is, obviously, a huge honor. It’s also been decidedly perilous in recent years.
Dating all the way back to Bill Clinton’s first term, at least one Cabinet pick has flopped – either dropping out after a scandalous news story breaks or failing to gather the needed support among senators to be confirmed. (Zoe Baird! Tom Daschle! Andy Puzder!)
Not so – at least not yet – for President Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks. At present, 7 of the 23 Cabinet-level nominees Biden has put forward have been confirmed by the Senate – including his secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security.
And what’s as fascinating is that even some of the picks that appeared headed for rough seas now look likely to get confirmed.
Take Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden’s nomination was met with widespread skepticism due, at least in part, to her long history of tweets attacking senators by name. Her nomination appeared even more imperiled when Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), who had been on the receiving end of lots of Tanden’s barbs, ascended to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee – which is charged with holding her confirmation hearing.
And yet, while Tanden’s hearings over the past few days haven’t been easy on her, she appears to have expressed enough regret about her past actions to satisfy Sanders and guarantee she gets out of committee and onto the floor for a full Senate vote. With Democrats in control of the Senate, that virtually guarantees she is confirmed.
(It’s worth noting here that Senate Democrats’ 2013 decision to change the rules to allow presidential appointees to be confirmed by a simple majority has radically changed the calculus of who presidents pick and why. It’s also made nominees’ chances of confirmation far higher if their party controls the Senate.)
With Tanden possibly having run the confirmation gauntlet, there isn’t now an obvious Biden nominee who will join the ignominious list I mentioned above. Which is a remarkable turnaround from Axios reporting just after the 2020 election that suggested some Democrats were advising Biden to pick a “sacrificial lamb” nominee to a) hand Republicans a win and b) ensure safe passage of his other nominees. (Sidebar: This was always a terrible idea, as I wrote at the time.)
The last of the most high-profile Cabinet appointees yet to be confirmed is Merrick Garland as attorney general. Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that it would hold Garland’s confirmation hearing February 22 and 23 with a committee vote on the nomination set for March 1. While Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court back in 2016 was blocked by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, there has been very little indication that Garland will have any major problems in winning confirmation to the AG post – especially with Democrats now in control of the Senate.
Republicans have, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story, turned their attention instead to Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services. (Becerra previously served as the attorney general of California and held a seat in the US House.)
“The GOP is fixated on rejecting President Biden’s pick to helm the Department of Health and Human Services, but not for the type of personal failings that typically doom early nominees. It is Becerra’s perceived political and policy sins that are fueling the bid to block him. His California credentials aren’t helping in a Senate where Republicans have no shortage of hostility toward the state, particularly after Becerra led the filing of more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration.
“Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently ripped into the nominee on the Senate floor, calling Becerra a ‘famously partisan’ abortion advocate who is unqualified for the job. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford called Becerra’s policy pursuits ‘bizarre,’ accusing the California attorney general of ‘encouraging the death of children.’ Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said Becerra is on the ‘extreme left.’”
Becerra’s confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (The committee is chaired by Washington Sen. Patty Murray.) But for all of Republicans’ bluster about blocking Becerra, it’s important to remember that unless and until a Democratic senator says they will vote against Becerra (or any other Biden Cabinet pick), he would be confirmed by the Democratic majority.
The grain of salt in all of this is that we are less than a month into Biden’s presidency. And that there are still nine “core” Cabinet nominees who remain unconfirmed.
But there’s no question that the Cabinet confirmation process has gone smoother than even Biden – no stranger to Senate confirmation fights – could have even hoped. So far, at least.