Biden reconsiders Cabinet dream team after Democrats' lackluster Senate gains. Stock sinking for progressives like Bernie, Warren

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  • President-elect Joe Biden’s team is rethinking its Cabinet makeup now that Democrats’ chances of capturing the Senate majority look grim, Insider has learned.
  • “A whole new dynamic has opened up,” a Democratic source close to the campaign told Insider.
  • Progressive icons such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders might have lost any shot at confirmation, although it’s unclear whether Biden was leaning toward nominating them to begin with.
  • Meanwhile, more centrist Cabinet prospects such as retiring Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico who’s seen as a contender for Interior secretary might have a better shot at getting the nomination.
  • “It would not surprise anybody if Biden looked for compromise picks in some of his more high-profile Cabinet choices,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden probably won’t get his Cabinet dream team, thanks to Mitch McConnell. 

Biden’s camp is already rethinking its roster of top officials now that Democrats’ chances of capturing a Senate majority look grim and the Kentucky Republican is likely to remain majority leader. 

The Biden campaign and his transition team have been batting around names for top administration officials in anticipation of his move into the White House on January 20. They’re reconsidering their top choices as the Democrats’ only remaining pathway to controlling the Senate hinges on two difficult runoff races in Georgia, according to two Democratic sources close to the campaign. 

Democrats are worried that McConnell — who reveled in blocking many of President Barack Obama’s nominees — could use that same playbook to stymie Biden’s cabinet picks. 

“A whole new dynamic has opened up,” said one of those sources, a veteran Democratic insider who requested anonymity. 

A path to confirmation for progressive stars such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders might be out of the question, although it’s unclear whether Biden wanted to put his former campaign trail rivals in his Cabinet in the first place. More centrist Democrats on Biden’s short list might have a better chance at winning over GOP confirmation votes. 

“It would not surprise anybody if Biden looked for compromise picks in some of his more high-profile Cabinet choices,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

Take, for example, retiring New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, whose father was a legendary Interior Department secretary. Udall has been considered a contender for the top Interior job in a Biden cabinet but faces competition for the post, including from another New Mexican, Rep. Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress. 

Udall’s shot at becoming Interior secretary probably went up thanks to the close Senate margins and the likelihood that Senate Republicans would prefer their former colleague, said the Democratic source close to the campaign.  

An environmental justice leader who has been mentioned as a Biden EPA administrator might also face longer odds, said the other Democratic source close to the campaign. Mustafa Santiago Ali who helped run the EPA’s environmental justice program, and would be considered “an electrifying choice for the left,” was considered a top contender to lead the agency, that source said. But that calculation could now change based on the Senate’s makeup. Ali ended his 24-year-career at the EPA after Trump’s election. 

Sally Yates, who is on Biden’s transition team and is considered a contender to be attorney general, is another prospect whose confirmation might be less likely under a GOP-led Senate, according to Democratic insiders. She became a liberal hero but also a lightning rod for controversy among Republicans early in the Trump administration when she fought with President Donald Trump over his travel ban that impacted majority-Muslim countries. 

The Biden campaign and transition team have been tight-lipped about personnel decisions and did not respond to a request for comment on its Cabinet plans.

The Senate confirmed some of President Barack Obama’s nominees on his first day in office. Biden’s nominees might have a tougher time.
Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

Senate majority TBD

The Senate majority still hasn’t been decided. Democrats could eke out a razor-thin majority there, but they’ll need to win two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5 after both their candidates failed to gain at least 50% of the votes needed to win the November 3 elections. And senators swapping parties is always a possibility, but that doesn’t appear likely in 2021.

Biden may want to roll out his top Cabinet picks before the end of this year to have some of them teed up for confirmation on or just after Inauguration Day. It’s unclear whether he’ll wait for the Senate majority to be decided before he makes his nominations. 

Obama, for example, had nominated many of his top Cabinet picks by late November 2008, some of whom were confirmed by the Senate on his first day in office, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

Democrats should make their plans based on an assumption of a GOP-controlled Senate next year, said Jim Moran, a lobbyist and former Virginia Democratic congressman. 

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Democrats to avoid there being two Republican senators in Georgia, so I think you go on that assumption,” Moran told Insider. 

Even if Republicans control the Senate next year, some Democrats remain optimistic that the GOP will be cooperative on Biden’s Cabinet picks. 

McConnell and Biden worked together for years in the Senate and remained cordial. The Republican largely avoided criticizing Biden throughout the divisive 2020 campaigns.

McConnell “is not going to be quite as strident this go around as he was with Obama,” Payne said, in part because he’ll be trying to protect vulnerable Republicans who are facing 2022 reelection and won’t want to be viewed as an obstructionist. 

Cori Kramer, executive director of the group Center Forward, which aims to end the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, said the likely divided Congress will mandate that politicians work across the aisle to accomplish anything. 

“A functioning and successful government for the American people is what we should all be focusing on, from Cabinet appointments to legislative agendas,” Kramer told Insider. “This is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history and should be seen as an opportunity for both parties to come to the table to address the ongoing health and economic crises.” 

Supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to see them or other progressives in Biden’s inner circle.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

‘Veto power’ for McConnell?

Progressives are worried McConnell won’t want to play ball on Cabinet nominations or much of anything else, and they’re already urging Biden’s team to advance left-leaning nominees and to circumvent Senate Republicans if necessary. 

“Biden’s job is to do his job as president and then impose political costs on McConnell if McConnell acts like he’s acted for the last four years,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive advocacy group. 

The Revolving Door Project and Demand Justice, another progressive organization, issued a memo on Friday spelling out how a Biden team could get around a McConnell blockade. 

“Biden must not allow McConnell veto power over how he constructs his administration,” the memo says. The groups urge Biden to use a law called the Vacancies Act and recess appointments as maneuvers to fill jobs without Senate confirmations. But it appears highly unlikely that Biden, a longtime senator and institutionalist, would want to use those tactics.

Many on the left concede that prospects for a Biden Cabinet packed with progressive stars — such as Sanders or Warren — grew even slimmer when Democrats didn’t chalk up big Senate gains, although many Democrats were already skeptical that Biden would put Warren and Sanders in top administration jobs.  

“I think it got extremely tricky for US senators and probably it’s a little tricky too now for more progressive members coming out of the House,” said a former aide to Sanders. “The calculus is a little different, but I just don’t think progressives really believe that Joe Biden is prepared to stack his administration with progressives.”

While progressives are still hopeful for a Warren or Sanders administration post, there’s an understanding that Biden might just grant progressives a couple of positions — while urging that he’ll keep the lines of communication open with key progressives throughout his presidential term.

Heather Gautney, a longtime Sanders aide who was senior policy adviser to his presidential campaign, is hopeful the Biden team will bring progressives into the administration, even if Sanders doesn’t make it into the Cabinet. 

“I don’t think that they should be making cabinet decisions based on what Mitch McConnell thinks,” Gautney said. “He’s a nefarious figure.”