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Nov. 6, 2020, 3:41 p.m. EST

Biden’s dilemma: picking nominees he wants without looking too partisan

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By Jonathan Nicholson

If Joe Biden is officially called the 2020 U.S. presidential election winner, he’ll have to decide on his cabinet. One piece of advise from both sides of the aisle: don’t go too far left.

While Biden awaits the unofficial calls by TV networks of his victory, his team is already looking at transition efforts, according to reports. One of the biggest items will be deciding on short lists of names for potential cabinet secretaries.

But Tuesday’s vote threw a monkey wrench into those deliberations with the news Republicans were likely to retain control of the U.S. Senate and thus be able to block his incoming team, if they wanted. An Axios article Thursday said cited “a source close ” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as saying McConnell would block nominees deemed too progressive.

“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” said Kent Conrad, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota.

Still, Conrad said Biden should be wary of picking nominees that would undermine his campaign theme of unifying the country.

“If we advance ideologues, we will have a hard time getting them confirmed them and getting the confidence of the American people,” he said.

Biden, he said, has to govern from the middle of the political spectrum. “That’s who he is, that’s what he ran on and that’s how he won,” Conrad said.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum and a former economist in the George W. Bush White House, said the think fears McConnell will stymie Biden’s picks are probably overblown.

“I think it’s actually premature to come to any conclusion of that type,” he said. “Nothing lives in isolation.”

“Suppose Biden is prepared to go forward with genuinely bipartisan legislative efforts and does his best work with Mitch McConnell on his priorities. It’s unlikely then that the majority Leader would turn around and have a blanket rejection of his nominees,” he said.

In addition, McConnell and Biden have a long relationship from Biden’s years in the Senate that could also factor into play.

“People forget that it was Mitch McConnell who negotiated with Joe Biden and cut the deal on the fiscal cliff back in 2012 and, in return, the Obama administration sidelined Biden for the remainder of his time. He did not negotiate with Congress. They viewed that as too accommodating,” Holtz-Eakin said.

While Biden could try to take advantage of some of the legal and administrative precedents set by naming his desired officials as acting secretaries, Holt-Eakin said that would play against Biden’s efforts to portray himself as a unifying figure.

“If that’s really how he wants to hopefully set the atmosphere, then you don’t take Elizabeth Warren and stick her as Secretary of the Treasury, because you are picking a fight. We’ll see what they choose to do,” he said.

Conrad said picking a senator, particularly one from a state where a Republican governor could name the successor, as in Massachusetts in Warren’s case, is dicey. He pointed to the stalling of health care reforms after Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Conrad said.

Unlike Holtz-Eakin, though, Conrad did not doubt McConnell would be willing to block Biden nominees.

“I think McConnell has demonstrated he puts partisanship above everything else,” he said.

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