Hill Dems eyeing Cabinet posts see their hopes shrinkNovember 11, 2020
Congressional Democrats spent months openly jockeying for a potential Biden Cabinet spot. Then came the Election Day train wreck.
Democrats’ disappointing down-ballot finish — failing to take the Senate majority outright and losing critical seats in the House — has put a serious damper on the prospect of their own members being plucked from Congress to join President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
There are still more than a half-dozen Hill Democrats being floated as Biden appointees or advisers, including Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Reps. Karen Bass of California and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana. But plenty more Democrats — many in seats the party can’t afford to lose — are effectively off the short list, with one lawmaker making a play for the Cabinet describing their current Hill tenure as a “disqualifying factor.”
“The Biden administration has to be a lot more sensitive of where you come from if you’re looking at members of Congress,” Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said in an interview. “We cannot afford to put any seats in jeopardy.”
In the Senate, Democrats privately acknowledge that liberals Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) no longer stand a chance of confirmation as long as Mitch McConnell remains majority leader. And even if Democrats flip a pair of Senate seats in Georgia early next year to take a 50-50 majority, opposition from centrist Democrats could stifle liberal appointees anyway.
Not to mention, while much of the Cabinet is typically filled out by December, Biden signaled Tuesday he is moving fast — saying he will name a “couple” of Cabinet nominees before Thanksgiving even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede.
And in the House, Democrats say they’re unwilling to risk a competitive special election next year that could further diminish its thin majority, putting an end to speculation around swing-district Democrats such as Rep. Katie Porter in Orange County, who has been revered by the left.
Democrats also noted that Biden will want his strongest congressional allies to remain on Capitol Hill, given the slimmer margins in the House and a potential Republican Senate.
“There’s so much talent outside the Senate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “This is going to be a really, really challenging two years because President Biden is going to need strong leadership in the Congress. … And I think he’ll prefer to have people he trusts be here.”
Democrats across Capitol Hill had been gleefully anticipating the reshuffling that would have resulted from a resounding sweep of all three branches on Nov. 3 — a game of musical chairs that would reward long-time Democrats with Cabinet posts and create a slew of openings in both chambers.
But Democrats have so far seen a net gain of just one seat in the Senate, and are likely to remain in the minority, barring an unprecedented showing in the Georgia runoffs in January.
That would essentially leave McConnell and his emboldened Senate GOP conference with veto power over Biden nominees, dooming some of the Democrats’ more left-leaning picks. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Biden has yet to consult him on members of his caucus potentially going to the Cabinet.
Last week’s election also shrunk the ranks of House Democrats, who so far have lost a net six seats, resulting in the thinnest majority in nearly two decades.
Even if Biden picked Democrats in safe blue districts, those seats could remain empty for some time early in the 117th Congress — further impeding Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ability to maneuver legislation on the floor.
Several Democrats said they doubted that Biden would look to any of their colleagues for the executive branch, particularly those from swing districts or with Republican governors who could appoint Senate replacements.
“That’s not gonna happen. That’s the political reality and most people are going to see that,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said in an interview. “That would be a dumb decision to put somebody from a seat that we turn around and lose in a special election.”
“We don’t have a lot of seats in the House and the Senate to spare,” Cleaver said.
Some of the Hill Democrats with the best prospects may be those who either fell short or opted out of their own reelection this year, including Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who lost reelection but whose career as a civil rights prosecutor in Alabama has landed him among the prospects for attorney general.
Asked about whether he was interested in the post on Monday night, Jones said he had been friends with Biden for a long time and didn’t rule it out.
“I just want Joe Biden to succeed. That’s all I’m going to say about that,” Jones said. Retiring Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is also a possibility for Interior.
Coons, a long-time Biden ally, may have the best shot at landing in the administration, several Democrats said. A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Coons has been floated as a candidate for Secretary of State — a centrist Democrat with strong GOP ties who could actually be appointed in a gridlocked GOP-controlled Senate.
Coons played down expectations he would be tapped for a Cabinet position but added that he would accept if offered.
“If he surprises me by asking me to consider serving in his Cabinet, I’d be honored to do so,” Coons said. “But I could also understand how he might say, ‘Look, we’re at a moment where folks who can deliver on bipartisanship in the Senate are at a premium, and I need you to stay there.’”
If Coons is selected, it would open up a Senate seat that’s widely expected to go to Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a popular Delaware Democrat in a solid blue seat and from a state with a Democratic governor. Blunt Rochester would also become the only Black woman serving in the Senate, after Vice President-elect Kamala Harris begins her new post.
Biden’s win guarantees at least some shuffling in the Senate, with a battle already breaking out over who should succeed Harris. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has not yet hinted at his appointee, though he’s facing intense pressure to pick a woman of color or a Latino.
Among those being floated for the Senate seat are Bass and Rep. Barbara Lee — two long-time Black Democrats who have deep respect across the party.
Bass has also been discussed for several positions in a Biden Cabinet, including Health and Human Services chief. Bass has also discussed becoming ambassador to the United Nations, according to multiple Democratic sources.
Another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, has privately said she is interested in becoming the Secretary of Agriculture.
Richmond, a co-chair of the Biden campaign, is expected to join the West Wing in some capacity, though the precise role isn’t clear, according to several Democrats. The Louisiana Democrat would vacate a deep blue seat in New Orleans, which the party isn’t worried about holding.
Picking a successor for Harris and potentially Coons would be far easier than navigating a Senate appointment in other states, particularly those with a GOP governor.
Warren’s home state of Massachusetts has a Republican governor. But Democrats also have a supermajority in the state Legislature and could theoretically change the rules to require that Gov. Charlie Baker select a Democrat as Warren’s replacement. But the progressive senator, who wants to serve as Treasury secretary, would have little chance of being confirmed in a GOP-controlled Senate.
Under Trump, the Senate was not a recruiting ground for Cabinet nominees. Sen. Jeff Session of Alabama was the only sitting senator chosen for Trump’s Cabinet over four years.
President Barack Obama, however, looked to the upper chamber so much that he was once derided for “raiding the Senate” for his Cabinet. In 2008, he appointed two sitting senators for Cabinet positions — Ken Salazar of Colorado for Interior and Hillary Clinton of New York for State; and he tapped Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to succeed Clinton as secretary of State in his second term.
Several Democrats who have been the subject of rumors of potential Cabinet appointments have said in recent days that they are likely to stay in the Senate. They includes Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Patty Murray of Washington.
Sen. Chris Murphy pf Connecticut said that despite the potential changes a Biden administration could bring to Congress, the president-elect should ultimately pick whom he wants.
“I understand that one or two vacancies can make a difference, but if President-elect Biden thinks there’s someone in the Senate who is going to serve him well and is the clear best choice then he should choose that person,” Murphy said. “I would hope that Vice President Biden would look to members of Congress to fill out some key slots.”
Alex Thompson, John Bresnahan and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.