After slow early progress on approving President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees, the Senate is finally on track to catch up to its pace of confirmations at the beginning of the Trump and Obama administrations.
With Donald Trump’s impeachment trial over and Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed, the Senate is spending this week on a confirmation blitz. The chamber is set to approve Biden’s picks to lead the Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Remember, we didn’t have a majority until three weeks later" than usual thanks to the Georgia Senate runoffs, noted Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democratic leader. "There wasn’t much of a transition. So I think we’re doing pretty good."
The Senate voted Tuesday evening to advance the nominations of Judge Merrick Garland for attorney general and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Fudge was confirmed Wednesday on a 66-34 vote, with Garland’s final approval to follow. North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan is expected to win confirmation as EPA administrator this week, while Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) appears on track for a final vote to become Interior secretary next week.
Thirteen members of Biden’s Cabinet have been confirmed so far this year, but that number is expected to increase to 16 by the end of the week. That brings this Congress close to the 18 Cabinet nominees confirmed under former President Trump during the same time period and equal to the 16 under former President Barack Obama in the equivalent timeframe. (The number of total Cabinet positions varies based on administration.)
But Biden came to the White House under different circumstances. Senate Democrats didn’t officially take the majority until Jan. 20, after winning Georgia’s two run-off races. And only after Democrats effectively won the Senate on Jan. 6 did Biden announce he would nominate Garland for attorney general.
It also took weeks for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to hammer out an agreement for governing the evenly split Senate, leaving Democrats without full control of the chamber’s committees until early February. On top of that, Trump’s impeachment trial in mid-February halted floor activity for about a week.
Considering those obstacles, Senate Democrats were confident in their progress toward giving Biden a Cabinet.
The catch-up effect on confirmations is due to "McConnell’s stalling the rules," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, but also a "cascading effect of delay" because of Democrats winning the majority in January as opposed to November.
“It’s proceeding,” agreed Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Obviously there was some time lost in the impeachment week."
So far, Biden’s cabinet picks have all been confirmed with bipartisan backing and that trend is expected to continue this week. Multiple Republicans voted Monday evening to move forward on Garland, including McConnell, who blocked the judge’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016. Fudge drew 19 Republican votes for advancing her nod. Regan, meanwhile, was voted out of the Environment and Public Works Committee with bipartisan support.
McConnell touted Republican support for Biden’s “mainstream nominees” on Monday and suggested GOP senators were more cooperative with Biden than Democrats were with Trump. The Kentucky Republican has supported every Biden nominee, except Alejandro Mayorkas for Department of Homeland Security, though he announced Wednesday that he plans to vote against Haaland and Regan.
“Frankly, the president and his team must be thrilled that Senate Republicans are proving to be more fair and more principled on personnel matters than the Democratic minority’s behavior just four years ago," McConnell said.
Democrats counter that Biden had more qualified nominees than Trump did, not to mention that Republican senators slapped holds on several Biden nominees — including Garland.
But not every Cabinet confirmation has gone smoothly. Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, last week withdrew from consideration after facing opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and moderate Republicans, highlighting Democrats’ razor-thin majority and the ability of a single senator to torpedo a nominee.
Democrats can confirm Biden’s nominees without Republican support, but they need full caucus unity in order for Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote.
It’s not unusual for at least one Cabinet nominee to go down during a new president’s term. Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary, withdrew after video surfaced of his wife alleging domestic abuse and after he admitted he did not pay taxes on the services of an undocumented immigrant. Obama saw three of his picks withdraw: Tom Daschle for secretary of Health and Human Services, and both Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg for Commerce secretary.
While Haaland sparked initial concern about centrist Democratic buy-in given her progressive background, she appears headed toward a smooth confirmation after Manchin, along with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), announced their support.
Manchin has yet to say whether he will support Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services. During his confirmation hearings, Becerra faced questions from Republicans about his experience in public health, his views on abortion and lawsuits he filed as attorney general of California. He was the first Biden nominee to be reported out of committee along party lines.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed confidence that Becerra would be confirmed Monday with the full support of the Democratic caucus.
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.