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Votes on Joe Biden nominees highlight partisan split in Senate

President Joe Biden arrives ahead of his speech

President Joe Biden arrives ahead of his speech a joint session of congress as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. Credit: Getty Images/Pool

WASHINGTON — Despite delays and unprecedented hurdles, President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats managed to confirm all his cabinet secretaries in the first 100 days in office with bipartisan support and at a clip faster than two previous presidents.

Yet at the same time, Senate Republicans cast some votes against every one of Biden’s nominees for secretaries of the 15 statutory departments, the first time a Senate caucus has shown opposition to all of an incoming president’s top-tier appointments.

Those seemingly contradictory actions show the evolution in the rules and change in attitude to a new president’s fraught and time-consuming task of filling some 4,000 political posts, with about 1,200 of them needing Senate approval, experts and scholars told Newsday.

The importance of those presidential appointments not only echo President Ronald Reagan’s mantra that "personnel is policy," but "it’s also your management, your effectiveness" in governing, Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said in an interview.

Stier attributes Biden’s success to his transition team for being well prepared. The nonpartisan White House Transition Project said on its website: "The Biden transition produced the best performance since transition records were kept."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), despite obstacles, managed to confirm 44 of Biden’s choices, including all the cabinet secretaries, even while passing a $1.9 billion stimulus bill and holding former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.

Biden suffered one defeat, when Neera Tanden, his choice for director of the second-tier cabinet-level Office of Management and Budget, withdrew after bipartisan opposition because of her past political tweets.

Political strategists and scholars said the approvals of Biden’s 15 cabinet secretary nominees, which drew a total of 374 Republican "no" votes, resulted from two factors: A watershed Senate rule change nearly a decade ago and the long trend of increased partisanship.

Those factors had the same effect in 2017 on Trump’s cabinet members, when 14 of the 15 nominees collectively drew a record 437 "nays" from Democrats.

The rule change occurred in 2013, when then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid grew frustrated with Republican filibusters of President Barack Obama’s lower court nominees, blocking many and dragging out approval for others.

In a dramatic step, Reid used a parliamentary procedure dubbed the "nuclear option" to lower the number of votes needed to end a filibuster, in what’s known as a cloture vote, for Obama’s lower court and executive nominees from 60 to 51.

"You are seeing the results of the 2013 rules change that lowered the cloture threshold for nominations," Michigan State University political science professor Ian Ostrander said in an email.

"Without the need to gain minority party votes on these key nominations, presidents were free to advance more controversial picks through the confirmation process. This explains some of the increase in ‘no’ votes," Ostrander said.

While political partisan conflict has been growing since the 1970's, it has intensified in more recent years over presidential appointments to cabinet and top-line positions in government, said Frances Lee, Princeton professor of politics and public affairs.

The filibuster change for nominees allowed senators to be more public about their opposition to presidents from the opposing party because they no longer had to worry about ensuring the president could staff his administration to run the government, Lee told Newsday.

"You can build up a nice scorecard of opposition to a president that your base can be pleased with and it doesn't have any further effects," she said.

That freedom combined with a shift in how many senators viewed the presidency.

"There used to be a presumption that unless there's some real outstanding issues at play a president deserves to have his Cabinet secretaries in place. That's no longer the case," said Democratic political strategist Jim Manley, who once worked for Reid.

"Why? Because that's just another indication of how partisan politics has become and how broken the Senate is," Manley said.

Only one Democrat voted against a President George H.W. Bush cabinet nominee when Bush became president in 1989.

And no Republican voted against any of President Bill Clinton’s nominees in 1993, although he did withdraw two attorney general selections.

The minority party "no" votes began growing in 2001, when Democrats cast a total of 66 "nays" against President George W. Bush’s picks for Interior Secretary and Attorney General.

In 2009, Republicans spread 105 "no" votes against five Obama nominees.

In 2017, Trump became the first president to staff his administration under the weakened filibuster rule, and his nominees faced a record number of opposition nays.

But Trump, who had never served in government, had a difficult transition compared with most new presidents, and made several controversial nominations, experts said.

"They were the slowest in getting their people in place. They had the most turnover, and they had the most continued vacancies," Stier said.

By day-100 in office, Congressional records show, Trump had submitted 75 nominations to the Senate, far fewer than Obama’s 198 and even fewer than the 87 sent by George W. Bush, who had a truncated transition because of the Florida election dispute.

Despite the extraordinary conditions of a challenged election victory, a delayed transition, a pandemic, an economic crisis and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Biden, a Senate and White House veteran, submitted 239 nominations to the Senate by his 100th day last Thursday, records show.

Stier said Biden’s team even had put in place 1,100 political appointees who do not require Senate approval on his first day in office on Jan. 20, a figure he said that has grown to 1,500.

According to records, the scorecard for confirmed nominations in the first 100 days shows: Biden 44, Trump 29, Obama 70, W. Bush 35, Clinton 56 and H.W. Bush 47.

Now that Trump and Biden have shown how defanging the filibuster affects a president's Senate-confirmed nominations when their party controls both the White House and the Senate, Lee said she has a big question.

"What is going to happen," she asked, "the next time a president takes office and has to fully staff his administration but has a Senate controlled by the opposing party?"

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