Why Biden's Cabinet remains nearly empty after two weeks

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The GOP minority has slowed the confirmation process to a crawl.

More than two weeks since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, just six of his nominees to Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions have been confirmed by the Senate. The reason: unprecedented obstruction by the chamber's Republican minority.

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the nominations of Pete Buttigieg to be secretary of transportation and Alejandro Mayorkas to be secretary of homeland security. They joined Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, and director of national intelligence Avril Haines, who had previously been confirmed.

But the vast majority of Biden's nominees have not been confirmed, leaving 17 of 23 positions empty. Many of the nominees are still awaiting confirmation hearings.

With gains in the 2020 election and Vice President Kamala Harris as the deciding vote in the event of a tie, Democrats now hold a 51-to-50 majority in the Senate. But the GOP minority has taken advantage of an unusual series of events to slow the confirmation process to a crawl.

Though Biden won the 2020 election by a wide margin, several Senate Republicans refused to accept him as the victor. Senate control remained undecided until Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.

After spending the final months of 2020 ramming through as many of lame duck Donald Trump's judicial nominees as possible, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recessed the Senate for most of January. No hearings were held for Biden nominees until Jan. 19.

After Democrats officially gained a narrow Senate majority on Jan. 20, McConnell (R-KY) threatened to filibuster the organizing resolution needed to give the new majority control of the chamber's committees. Agreement on the resolution was not reached until Wednesday, meaning the old GOP committee chairs were able to delay confirmation hearings if they so desired. Then-Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, for example, refused to schedule a hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, Biden's nominee for attorney general.

Republicans are blaming the president's push for a large coronavirus relief bill and the upcoming second impeachment trial of Trump for the delays in confirming Biden's Cabinet choices.

"The Democrats have chosen the agenda and they've chosen to do the budget resolution, so if there's delay in nomination it's because it's their choice," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told the Hill on Wednesday, saying that while it was busy with the impeachment trial, the Senate would not have the unanimous consent required for taking up the nominations.

Just four years ago, Republicans were singing a different tune. In 2017, Democrats utilized Senate rules that allow up to 30 hours of debate on each nominee to stop the quick confirmation of some of Trump's more controversial nominees. Though they did not prevent confirmation hearings from taking place, and some of the delays stemmed from his own administration's slowness, Trump called it a "disgrace" that his nominees were waiting longer for confirmation than any other Cabinet nominees had before.

McConnell too denounced the slow speed of confirmation of Trump's nominees. "Democrat obstruction has reached new extreme levels, as the smallest number of Cabinet officials have been confirmed in modern history, at this point in a presidency," he said in a floor speech on Feb. 6, 2017. "It's a historic break in tradition, a departure from how newly elected presidents of both parties have been treated in decades past."

A CNN tracker shows that Biden's nominees are waiting much longer than previous Cabinets have for confirmation. Seven of George W. Bush's nominees, for example, were confirmed on the first day of his administration — even though Democrats held a Senate majority prior to that day.

The lack of a fully operational Cabinet could have serious consequences for the American people.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic remains a deadly crisis in every state, Republicans have refused to confirm Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general and a former 12-term U.S. representative nominated to oversee the public health response as secretary of health and human services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health — the agencies responsible for virus tracking, vaccination, treatment, and research — all fall under the department Becerra has been tapped to lead.

Similarly, the Department of Justice is currently run by acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson. Intelligence agencies have warned of a high threat of domestic terrorism in the aftermath of the assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL), in pushing for Garland's confirmation as attorney general, told CNN, "We cannot ignore what happened Jan. 6. ...  It's the last major element of our national security team. I think it should be a high priority."

In a November interview, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) admitted that his party would obstruct Biden's nominees as payback for Democrats being "so unfair" to Trump. "There'll be a lot less deference given to presidential appointments because there was zero deference given to President Trump's appointments," he warned.

But polling indicates that the public does not want this sort of obstruction for obstruction's sake. A Yahoo News/YouGov survey released Monday found that 71% of Americans want the GOP minority in Congress to "find ways to work together with Biden." Just 25% want them to keep him "in check."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.