Merrick Garland has just been confirmed as the next Attorney General of the United States, in a bipartisan 70-30 Senate vote earlier today. Garland, who was famously snubbed by the GOP Senate for a seat in the Supreme Court in 2016, became the 15th cabinet pick of the Biden Administration who has been confirmed by the Senate.
Despite having a 50-50 senate, most of Biden’s nominees have received comfortable margins during their confirmation votes. With the exception of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has received the closest confirmation vote yet (56-43) and former nominee Neera Tanden who withdrew her name for consideration after a controversial nomination process, all of Biden’s cabinet members have received more than 60 affirmative votes in the senate, with many Republican Senators voting for them.
The Republican Party has gained a name for obstructionism and partisanship after their acrimonious relationship with former President Obama, with many Democrats accusing the GOP of being the party of “No”. However, the GOP has not shown much obstructionism during the confirmation process, and some lawmakers even tried to bridge the divide with the administration during the draft of the COVID relief bill, which were received with a wall of indifference by the White House.
Democrats don’t return the favor
Democrats during the first year of the Trump administration, however, showed a very different treatment to his nominations for the Cabinet. Democrats closed ranks and did not show the same bipartisan consensus as Republicans are doing now during the confirmation process. With only 8 nominees receiving more than 60 votes, which required less Democrats to vote for them than now as Republicans held a 52-47 majority in 2017. Republicans, on the other hand, have given ample support to at least 12 cabinet positions who have received more than 60 votes during their confirmation process, and there are many nominations votes remaining.
All of Trump’s nominees to the most prestigious cabinet posts (State, Attorney General, and Treasury) were confirmed with very few Democratic votes. Tillerson (State) only received four, while Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) and Steve Mnuchin (Treasury) only had one Democratic vote during his confirmation.
Contrasting this with the same nominees of the Biden administration: Janet Yellen (Treasury) was confirmed with the vote of 34 Republicans, Antony Blinken (State) received the approval of 28 GOP senators, and Merrick Garland has just cruised through his nomination with 20 Republican Senators concurring with President Biden’s pick.
Republicans have also given support to many of Biden’s nominees to more modest positions, with 28 Republicans giving their support to the new US Ambassador to the UN, four Republicans voting in favor of the recommendation of Michael Regan to the EPA, and 36 Republicans approving the nomination of Pete Buttigieg (a rising star in the Democratic Party) to occupy his new position as the head of the Department of Transportation.
Comparing the nominations that received 20 or more votes from the opposite party, the GOP clearly has a better record than their counterparts. As of today, 8 of Biden’s major Cabinet nominees have received ample bipartisan support, while Democrats only gave this level of support to six of Trump’s nominations. Although this difference seems small, is important to highlight that at least three more of Biden’s major Cabinet nominations are scheduled to be voted and that Democrats did not give much support to the top three Cabinet positions, in contrast to the smooth sailing confirmations of Yellen, Blinken, and Garland.
There are still more confirmations in the process, and some may show a more partisan vote in the Senate (probably the HHS nominee Xavier Becerra) it would be very petty to not admit that Senate Republicans have largely given President Biden the benefit of the doubt when confirming his team. Unlike Democrats during the 2017 confirmation process, where they closed rank and almost unanimously voted against the most notorious picks of President Trump.
President Biden ran in 2020 under the mantra of “restoring the soul of America”, promising to work with Republicans when needed. The American Electorate gave him the chance, as the very think majorities he has in both chambers would give him incentives to seek some common ground across the aisle. Senate Republicans, as shown with their confirmation votes and willingness to negotiate the details of the COVID bill, also have lended President Biden their ear and goodwill to at least have some meaningful discussion on tackling solutions to the issues the country faces. Biden had a golden opportunity to start healing the divide.
Regretfully, as the extremely partisan vote on the COVID bill showed, Biden has missed this opportunity. Despite some in the left arguing that Biden has done everything within his power to reach for bipartisan support (like this Washington Post piece argues), it is hard to see the Democrats as being serious about bipartisanship when their Senate Leader proudly said that looking for bipartisan support in the 2009 stimulus bill was “a great mistake”.
Biden’s window for bipartisan goodwill is rapidly closing and the next bills will surely unleash teh partisan demons in Capitol Hill. Whether it is due to his ambitious immigration plan, an expensive Infrastructure Plan or an overhaul of the electoral system in the coutnry, if Biden was not able to get GOP support for COVID relief, do not hold your breath for cooperation in the other issues.
Bipartisanship, just as polarization, is a cycle. One act of goodwill from one part should incentivize the other to follow suit, the GOP has its own share of blame for not looking to reach across the aisle before. However, in 2021 Republicans have shown some good faith in their confirmation votes, is a pity that Democrats have not followed suit.