What will Senate Republicans do with Biden's cabinet nominees?

Marco Rubio's latest rhetoric served as a reminder: confirmation fights over the next couple of years are likely to be quite contentious.
Image: Democrats Hold Press Conferences Pushing Back On Amy Coney Barrett's Confirmation Process
Democratic members of Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, exit the Capitol for a news conference on Oct. 22, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Two days after Election Day, there was still some uncertainty about the outcome of key races, including the race for the presidency. But Axios reported at the time that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was already thinking ahead -- about the next president's cabinet.

"Republicans' likely hold on the Senate is forcing Joe Biden's transition team to consider limiting its prospective Cabinet nominees to those who Mitch McConnell can live with," the report said. Axios added that Senate Republicans were prepared to veto cabinet nominees "who are controversial with conservatives."

Two weeks have passed, and Politico reported overnight that the incoming president's cabinet prospects are improving.

Senate Republicans are signaling they will confirm most of President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks in January — a rare bright spot for a White House that may clash with a GOP majority for years to come. Many Republicans won't even publicly concede that Biden will be the next president while President Donald Trump fights to overturn the election results. But a critical mass of GOP senators said in interviews that Biden has the right to his Cabinet, indicating he may be able to staff his administration largely to his liking.

To be sure, some of this is premature. We don't know for certain, for example, what will become of Donald Trump's efforts to nullify election results he doesn't like. We also can't say with confidence which party will have a Senate majority next year -- and if it's Democrats, it won't much matter what GOP senators think of the new president's cabinet choices.

But if Georgia's Senate runoff elections go Republicans' way, and the Senate begins 2021 with a 52-seat GOP majority, Biden's nominees will need at least a couple of Republicans to vote to confirm his choices. For now, it looks like he'll have them:

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said that he believes a "president ought to be able to pick his or her Cabinet barring someone who is out of the mainstream of either party," and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) gives "great latitude" to presidents to make appointments. Those two plus Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) give Biden a working majority on Cabinet picks.... "He's our president-elect. All presidents have a right to their Cabinet," Murkowski said. "Our job, our role is to make sure that he selects folks that are ... within the mainstream. And are good, qualified credible candidates. And if he does that, sure, I am going to work with him."

Time will tell whether these Republicans follow through on these commitments, and how willing McConnell is even to bring Biden's nominees to the floor for a vote. For now, however, it appears there's room for a constructive confirmation process.

Some GOP senators, however, have a more obstructionist plan in mind. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appeared on Hugh Hewitt's conservative talk-radio show yesterday, and he sounded a predictably partisan note.

"I do think that given what's occurred in the Senate over the last four years under President Trump, there'll be a lot less deference given to presidential appointments, because there was zero deference given to President Trump's appointments," Rubio complained. He added, "There's no way that Biden nominations are going to be treated like they've traditionally have been treated under previous presidents simply because the atmosphere in the Senate has changed, and frankly, because of the way the Democrats have just been so unfair during the Trump years."

In context, the senator wasn't explicitly referencing cabinet nominees, but the rhetoric seemed to apply broadly to those the incoming president will send to Capitol Hill for consideration.

Regardless, while Rubio's whining about Democrats being big meanies is difficult to take seriously, his rhetoric is a reminder that if Republicans fare well in Georgia on Jan. 5, confirmation fights over the next couple of years are likely to be contentious.