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By Justin Lamoureux
Johnson & Johnson began the rollout of its COVID-19 vaccine. Texas started repairing the damage of a devastating winter storm. Virginia legalized medical marijuana. Across the country, life went on this week, and progress was made. The Biden Administration was no exception.
The Biden Administration’s most important accomplishments in the last week came to fruition in the halls of Congress. After nearly three weeks of gridlock, the U.S. Senate helped President Biden expand his administration by confirming four additional cabinet nominees. Linda Thomas Greenfield (Ambassador to the United Nations) received congressional approval for her new role on February 23, along with Tom Vilsack: Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture. Jennifer Granholm (Secretary of Energy) was confirmed February 25, followed by Miguel Cardona (Secretary of Education) on March 1.
Of course, each nominee faced some opposition from Senate Republicans. Jennifer Granholm faced the most widespread objections, with 35 members (70% of the party’s overall caucus) voting against her confirmation. Miguel Cardona was not far behind, with 33 members (66% of Senate Republicans) opposing him. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, meanwhile, faced slightly less pronounced dissent: In the final vote, only 20 senators (40% of Republicans) refused to support her appointment. The only newly confirmed nominee who did not face substantial opposition was Tom Vilsack, who was rejected by only 6 Senate Republicans. Interestingly, Vilsack was the only Biden cabinet nominee to face hostility from a member of the Democratic caucus: Senator Bernie Sanders (I – VT) crossed party lines in disapproval of Vilsack’s nomination.
The overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans (46 of 50, or 92%) have opposed at least one of Biden’s cabinet picks; the specific number of objections, though, varies by member. Senator Josh Hawley (MO) has by far the strongest record on that front, having disapproved of 10 nominees (out of 11 confirmed thus far). Senator Ted Cruz (TX) is a close second, having voted against 9 appointments. Interestingly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has voted to confirm all but one of Biden’s nominees: Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. It should be noted that Mayorkas faced the strongest GOP opposition of any cabinet pick; 43 members – or 86% of the party’s Senate caucus – refused to support his confirmation.
So far, Republican dissent has only prevented the confirmation of one Biden nominee. The White House announced plans to withdraw Neera Tanden – the president’s choice for director of the Office of Management and Budget – on Monday evening. Tanden was facing opposition from 49 Senate Republicans, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (a key swing vote). Three members who could decide the fate of her nomination – Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders – remained undecided on whether to back Tanden. A well-known political consultant, Tanden is facing criticism for scathing tweets directed towards Republicans and progressive Democrats with whom she has disagreed on certain policy issues.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland – Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior – also faced the prospect of her confirmation being imperiled. Facing substantial criticism from Senate Republicans, Haaland was largely seen as a “toss-up” due to her progressive stances on fossil fuels. However, Senator Manchin – whose native West Virginia has an economy based largely on fossil fuel and coal production – affirmed his support for Haaland earlier this week, all but solidifying her prospects.
No new policy initiatives have been fully implemented since these nominees have been confirmed, but for the White House, their congressional approval is nevertheless a step in the right direction. With additional seats in his cabinet being filled – and the executive roles of less federal agencies vacated – Biden is poised to advance various aspects of his agenda. While Congress may assist the president by passing legislation of interest, the enactment of said ratifications is contingent on the support of agencies themselves. With influence over additional branches of the federal government, Biden now finds himself in a better position to govern with a seemingly effective administration.