ANALYSIS — With the confirmation of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on March 22 as Labor secretary, Joe Biden’s Cabinet is complete. And with all 15 of his department heads in place, it’s fair to say that Biden had the easiest time getting his team of any president in recent history.
Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who is considering a rules change to weaken the Senate’s filibuster because he expects Republicans will soon block legislation to set national standards for federal elections, painted a different picture of bipartisanship on the day Walsh was confirmed.
“Every single member of President Biden’s Cabinet has received a bipartisan vote in favor of confirmation,” he said. “It’s a tribute to President Biden and his team that they have chosen such a fine Cabinet, and a tribute to the senators here that we have moved in such a quick fashion despite so many other responsibilities.”
As minority leader in 2017, Schumer voted against 11 of President Donald Trump’s department secretaries and raised procedural roadblocks that pushed the final Cabinet confirmations that year into late April. But he argues that the difference now is the care with which Biden has made his picks, choosing people qualified for the jobs.
Still, the relative support of Republican senators for Biden’s Cabinet choices also underscores the GOP’s desire to save their limited political capital for the bigger policy fights to come, and Biden’s wisdom in choosing people who, with the exception of Xavier Becerra at the Health and Human Services Department, do not have long histories in the partisan trenches.
The 2013 decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to reduce the 60-vote requirement for executive branch appointments to a simple majority played a big role in the breezy confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet. Three of Biden’s 15 nominees did not receive at least 60 votes: Becerra, Deb Haaland at Interior and Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security.
With only a majority required, and a president and Senate held by the same party, it only takes party unity to confirm nominees now, and not one Democrat voted against any of Biden’s department secretaries.
But the confirmation wars have also grown less heated. The Republican minority has not mounted the kind of opposition to Biden’s picks that Democrats did in 2017 when Trump was the one doing the selecting.
Walsh’s confirmation, on a 68-29 vote, came more than a month earlier in the year than when the last Trump nominee, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, was confirmed. At this point in 2017, Trump was still waiting to get Acosta in place, as well as his Agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue.
Trump also lost his first choice to run Labor, Andrew Puzder, who withdrew after Republican senators signaled they would not support him because Puzder had employed an unauthorized immigrant as a housekeeper and his ex-wife had once accused him of physical abuse (though she later recanted).
All totaled, the 50 Republican senators cast 374 votes against Biden’s 15 nominees, an average of 7.5 each. In 2017, 48 senators in the Democratic Caucus cast 482 “no” votes on Trump’s picks, an average of 10.
Both parties now have resistance movements. Seven in the Democratic Caucus in 2017 opposed at least 12 of Trump’s nominees: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In opposing Biden’s picks, six Republicans are in that group: Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri (the only senator in either 2021 or 2017 to oppose all 15), Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.
Still, a group of Republicans has mostly supported Biden’s picks. Four have voted “no” three times or fewer: Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Collins (who voted for all 15), Murkowski and Mitt Romney of Utah.
By contrast, in 2017, only one Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, opposed only three Trump picks.
Biden also had an easier time in getting his Cabinet in place than the three presidents who preceded Trump: Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That’s despite the fact that Obama, Bush and Clinton enjoyed a less partisan confirmation process. The 15 people who became Clinton’s Cabinet all got there by voice vote or unanimous consent without the need for a roll call vote.
Bush saw 13 of his nominees confirmed that way, or by unanimous vote, and even Obama had nine Cabinet nominees seated by voice vote.
Still, the 60-vote threshold in place until 2013 made the Senate’s vetting process more fraught. Obama saw three of his choices withdraw in 2009 — his first two picks for Commerce secretary, former Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., as well as his first Health and Human Services nominee, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Richardson was embroiled in an investigation into his handling of a government contract when he was governor of New Mexico. Gregg decided he had too many policy disagreements with Obama, while Daschle faced concerns about his taxes and his work for a lobbying firm.
George W. Bush’s first Labor Department nominee, Linda Chavez, withdrew after acknowledging she’d paid an unauthorized immigrant to clean her house. Bill Clinton lost his first choice for attorney general, Zoë Baird, because she’d hired an unauthorized immigrant to watch her child.
This year, the blanket GOP opposition to Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law has obscured the fact that Republicans have mainly backed Biden’s nominees.
In addition to the 15 Cabinet secretaries, the Senate has confirmed 13 other high-level Biden administration officials. Three won approval by voice vote, while a majority of Republicans backed six of the other 10 in roll calls. And Biden has only lost one of his nominees, his pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, who withdrew after Manchin said he would not support her because of her critical tweets about senators of both parties.
The high level of GOP support for Biden on Senate votes will decline as Schumer brings more bills to the floor that most or all Republicans oppose. But as the filibuster fight looms, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is drawing the contrast between how Republicans have treated Biden's picks and how Democrats treated Trump’s.
“The nation needs presidents to be able to stand up a team so long as their nominees are qualified and mainstream,” he said on March 10, in announcing his support for Marcia L. Fudge for Housing and Urban Development secretary and Merrick B. Garland for attorney general, noting that he’d backed them even though he’d “spent four years watching many of our Democratic colleagues do everything possible to object, obstruct and delay President Trump’s nominees.”
Of the 15 Biden department heads, McConnell opposed only four. In floor speeches on Jan. 26 and March 16, he noted the procedural hurdles Republicans have foregone in permitting Biden’s Cabinet quick confirmation and warned Democrats contemplating changes to the filibuster that the path for future nominees won’t be so easy if they make any.