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Wake Up To Politics - December 11, 2020

Biden's picks take a turn
Wake Up To Politics - December 11, 2020

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Analysis: Biden’s picks take a turn

Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks started out fairly predictably. In his first burst of announcements, he elevated longtime advisers, Obama administration veterans, and individuals with extensive experience in the agencies he was tapping them to lead.

“The most remarkable part of President-elect Biden’s...early picks for positions of true power is the unremarkable — and predictable — nature of his big moves,” wrote Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei of Axios.

“Biden is appointing very traditional people,” Perry Bacon Jr. wrote for FiveThirtyEight. Graeme Wood called the appointees “the equivalent of a warm cup of Ovaltine with a melatonin chaser” in the pages of The Atlantic, noting that “they will barely need to order new business cards: a felt-tip marker to take out a word or two will suffice.”

When Biden announces his few newest appointees this afternoon, that will remain true for some of them — one, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is being nominated to return to the same exact position he held for eight years under Obama. But, with other picks, Biden’s decisions have swerved from predictable to downright unexpected.

  • To lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, he is nominating Denis McDonough, who served as Obama’s final White House chief of staff but has no experience in the military. He will only be the second non-veteran to lead the agency (after President Donald Trump’s first VA secretary); veterans groups were “disappointed,” “surprised,” “and even confused” by the selection.
  • To lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Biden chose California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, despite pressure from medical experts to pick a physician to hold the role amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • To lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Biden is nominating Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who does not have much of a record in housing policy and was lobbying for another post altogether.
  • To lead the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, Biden is appointing Susan Rice — someone with years of federal experience, but none in domestic policy, having served as National Security Advisor and UN Ambassador during the Obama tenure.

Rice will not need to receive Senate approval for her White House role, but some of the other curveball picks for the Cabinet will face uphill confirmation battles. Longtime Democratic operative Neera Tanden, the surprise pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, is unlikely to receive much support from GOP senators after a history of targeting them in caustic tweets. Conversely, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin — who was chosen to lead the Defense Department over expected nominee Michèle Flournoy — will likely need Republican backing for a waiver that will allow him to become Pentagon chief, due to opposition among Democrats.

What explains some of these more surprising selections? “Policy is secondary,” Matthew Stoller, the director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project and a prominent progressive critic of Biden’s, told Wake Up To Politics of the president-elect’s appointments. Instead, Stoller said, Biden is prioritizing relationships: “He’s mostly hiring people he knows and that Obama likes, as well as aiming for gender and racial diversity.”

Another progressive activist, Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, explained that “Biden’s team is juggling several factors,” chiefly “personal rapport,” “racial and gender diversity,” and “people few in the party will find distasteful.” Hauser added: “Juggling all of these factors is intensely complicated, and a complex process via a somewhat insular process can yield some headscratchers.”

Liam Donovan, a Republican political operative, similarly noted Biden’s focus on forming a diverse administration, telling Wake Up To Politics that it has “led to some surprises, whether it’s a dark horse at DOD or a familiar candidate slotted into an unexpected role as in the case of HHS.”

But many of the more unlikely picks — like placing longtime Obama aides Susan Rice at DPC or Denis McDonough at the VA — can be explained by one factor, Donovan said. Biden is elevating people he is “fond and familiar with, and whose personal affinity outstrips other considerations — at some level he’s turning the folks he trusts into utility players and hoping that relationship pays off.”

“When you consider what Joe Biden values, and how he approaches governing and politics, it’s inherently personal,” Donovan continued. “Viewed through that lens it's less surprising to me that Biden would tap them than that these folks would want to take on a new challenge at this stage in their career!”

Campaign 2020

More than half of House Republicans signed on to an amicus brief in support of a Texas lawsuit seeking to invalidate President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in four key states. The brief was joined by 106 out of the 196 House Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).

The original lawsuit, filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton before the Supreme Court, urges the justices to invalidate the electoral votes of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — four battleground states won by Biden. Paxton claims that the move is justified by “significant and unconstitutional irregularities” in the four states, although no evidence of widespread voter fraud has emerged.

President Donald Trump himself has asked to join the suit, which he called “the big one,” as have six other Republican state attorneys general. Twelve more attorneys general, many of whom met with President Trump for lunch on Thursday, signed on to an amicus brief backing the effort.

The legal campaign amounts to an unprecedented attempt by a group of U.S. states to throw out the presidential votes of other states. They are suing under “original jurisdiction,” which allows cases between states (general over borders or water rights) to go straight to the Supreme Court. It also means five justices, instead of the usual four, will have to vote to take up the case. Legal experts find that unlikely, especially after the court’s decision to reject a lawsuit seeking to block certification of the presidential vote in Pennsylvania.

In a tweet this morning, Trump urged the justices to “show great Courage & Wisdom” by accepting the case. He also referred to “the Biden Administration” in the same message, the farthest he has gone to acknowledge that Biden will be taking office on January 20.

Friday Roundup

An FDA advisory panel recommended that the agency grant authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. The panel voted 17-4, with one abstention, in favor of the recommendation; final authorization from the FDA is likely to follow in the coming days. The U.S. would be the fourth country to approve the vaccine, after the United Kingdom, Canada, and Bahrain. STAT News

Morocco and Israel agreed to establish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by the United States. It was the latest international agreement announced by the Trump administration; Israel has also normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan after U.S.-led negotiations. As part of the agreement, the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, becoming the first Western nation to wade into the country's decades-long dispute with the local Sahrawi population. Reuters

The Supreme Court releases its first four opinions of the term on Thursday, ruling unanimously on issuing ranging from the no-fly list to rape in the military. Read more via Wake Up To Politics legal contributor Anna Salvatore


All times Eastern.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have no public events scheduled.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will separately receive the President’s Daily Brief in the morning. At 2:30 p.m., they will introduce new members of their administration at an event in Wilmington, Delaware.

  • Biden and Harris will announce plans to nominate former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for another tour in that position, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and House Ways and Means Committee chief trade counsel Katherine Tai to be U.S. Trade Representative.
  • They will also announce plans to appoint former National Security Advisor Susan Rice as Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

The Senate will convene at 9:30 a.m. The chamber is scheduled to consider H.R. 6395, the National Defense Authorization Act, and H.R. 8900, the continuing resolution to extend government funding through 11:59 p.m. on Friday, December 18.

  • The CR must be passed by the Senate and signed by President Trump by midnight tonight to avert a government shutdown. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has threatened to delay passage of the NDAA, the annual $740 billion defense policy bill, which could complicate senators’ hopes of approving both pieces of legislation before the weekend.

The House is not in session.

The Supreme Court justices will meet for their weekly conference.

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