Ballotpedia’s Weekly Transition Tracker: February 8-12, 2021

President Joe Biden (D) and his team have been preparing for the transition between presidential administrations since the election, including selecting senior White House staff and appointees to top government positions.

In 2020, there were 1,472 government positions subject to presidential appointment: 1,118 positions required Senate confirmation and 354 did not. The new administration is also responsible for filling thousands of other positions across the federal government, including in operations and policy. Every weekday, Ballotpedia is tracking potential Cabinet nominees, appointments, and news related to the Biden administration.

  • On Monday, the Senate confirmed Denis McDonough for secretary of veterans affairs by a vote of 87-7. McDonough is the second non-veteran to hold this office. The following senators voted against his confirmation: Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), and Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works advanced the nomination of Michael Regan for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by a vote of 14-6 on Tuesday. We’ll provide a list of the six Republicans who voted against advancing the nomination when it is available.
  • On Thursday, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee advanced the nominations of  Miguel Cardona for secretary of education and Marty Walsh for secretary of labor to full Senate votes. 
    • The committee advanced Cardona’s nomination 17-5. The senators who voted against advancing the nomination were Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala).
    • The committee advanced Walsh’s nomination 18-4. Braun, Paul, Scott, and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) voted against advancing the nomination.
  • Two confirmation hearings were held this week, both for Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management and Budget. On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a confirmation hearing. The Senate Budget Committee held a confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Read more on Tanden’s confirmation process in the “Transition in Context” section below.
  • No committee hearings are scheduled for Friday, and none have been scheduled for next week.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing for U.S. attorney general on February 22-23. Garland will testify on the first day, while outside witnesses will speak on the second day.

Executive Actions

  • Biden signed an executive order related to the coup in Myanmar (Burma) that he said enables the U.S. “to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests, as well as close family members.” 
  • Biden rescinded former President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announcing his proclamation, Biden wrote, “I have also announced that it shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall, and that I am directing a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to that end.”
  • Biden issued a notice that he is continuing the national emergency with respect to Libya for one year. Former President Barack Obama declared the national emergency by executive order in February 2011. Obama and Trump had extended the order several times while in office.

Other News

  • The Associated Press reported that Biden was considering instructing the Department of Justice to halt new executions. When asked about a moratorium on Feb. 5, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “The President has spoken about his opposition to the death penalty in the past, but I don’t have anything to predict for you or preview for you in terms of additional steps.”
  • The Biden administration suspended three asylum cooperative agreements established by the Trump administration with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras on Feb. 6. Under these agreements, asylum seekers from the region were expected to seek refuge in these Central American countries before applying for asylum in the U.S. 
  • Under the Biden administration, the United States will return to the United Nations Human Rights Council as an observer. Trump withdrew from the council three years ago, citing bias against Israel and other issues.
  • Biden said he did not expect a $15 minimum wage to be in the final COVID-19 economic relief bill, although it was in his initial proposal.
  • Vox reported that the potential choices for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been narrowed to Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, and Joshua Sharfstein, a former principal deputy commissioner at the FDA.
  • The Department of Justice dropped a Trump administration lawsuit challenging California’s net neutrality law. Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, said in a statement, “When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws. By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land.”
  • The White House said on Feb. 9 that the Biden administration planned to keep the U.S. embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. The Trump administration moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.
  • The Biden administration asked all Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to resign with two exceptions. The two attorneys allowed to stay on are David Weiss and John Durham, who are investigating Hunter Biden’s taxes and the FBI probe into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, respectively.  
  • Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), along with four Republican House members and the Illinois Republican Party, requested Biden allow U.S. Attorney John Lausch to continue in his role investigating public corruption charges in Illinois.
  • Federal judge Drew Tipton, who sits on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, extended an order blocking Biden’s moratorium on deportations for two more weeks. Tipton was appointed by Trump in 2020.
  • The Justice Department said on Tuesday that it would continue efforts to have WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange extradited from the United Kingdom.
  • The Department of Justice withdrew federal government support for a case against the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. Several states filed the lawsuit, arguing that the individual mandate provision is no longer a valid exercise of Congress’ authority after Congress eliminated the payment in 2017 and that the rest of the law is invalid due to that provision. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler wrote that “it is now the position of the United States that the amended Section 5000A is constitutional” and that, “if this Court nevertheless concludes that Section 5000A(a) is unconstitutional, that provision is severable from the remainder of the ACA.”
  • The Department of Justice also asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to hold off on an appeal of a ruling that blocked the Trump administration’s restrictions on the video app TikTok while the Department evaluates the situation. According to the Associated Press, “Trump cited concerns that the Chinese government could spy on TikTok users if the app remains under Chinese ownership.” 
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a memorandum kicking off implementation of Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order directing agency heads to review policies in order to bar discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. HUD said it “interprets the Fair Housing Act to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and direct[s] HUD offices and recipients of HUD funds to enforce the Act accordingly.”
  • The Biden administration announced it would begin allowing an estimated 25,000 people seeking asylum at the Mexican border into the U.S. while they await immigration court hearings. The process is set to begin Feb. 19 with around 300 people per day. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that Biden will begin the process of revoking permissions for states to implement work requirements for Medicaid on Friday.
  • Axios reported that Biden is considering two Republicans for ambassadorships: Former Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Cindy McCain, widow of former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Transition in Context: In Their Words…

Here’s what leaders, advisers, and stakeholders said about Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, during and after her hearings before the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Tanden is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress (CAP).

  • “Before I vote on your nomination, it is important for me and members of this committee to know that those donations that you have secured at CAP will not influence your decision making at the OMB.” — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
  • “I’ve known her for a while, very nice person, but [she’s] not the unity pick I was looking for. … In a time of unity, we’re picking somebody who throws sharp elbows, and there’s going to be consequences for that.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
  • “[T]he President wouldn’t nominate anyone he wasn’t confident could get confirmed and didn’t deserve the consideration and confirmation … of Senate Democrats and Republicans.” — White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki

Tanden responded to questions and criticisms about CAP donations and her past tweets with the following:

  • Tanden said CAP donations would have “zero impact” on her decision-making and that “it will be my role to ensure that I am only serving the interests of the American people.” 
  • She said of her past tweets, “Social media does lead to too many personal comments, and my approach [at OMB] would be radically different.” She also said, “I deeply regret and apologize for my language.”

Transition in Context: Pace of Confirmations

The following two charts compare the pace of Senate confirmations for the 15 main Cabinet secretaries following the inaugurations of Presidents Barack Obama (D), Donald Trump (R), and Joe Biden (D).

Twenty days after their respective inaugurations, Trump and Biden both had six of these secretaries confirmed.

Three weeks after their respective inaugurations, Biden had six Cabinet secretaries confirmed and Obama had eleven. A twelfth Obama Cabinet member—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—was held over from the Bush administration.

Transition in Context: What makes the confirmation process for the director of the Office of Management and Budget different?

While most nominations are reviewed by a single Senate committee, the process for nominations for the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is different.

Neera Tanden will be the only Cabinet-rank nominee to face two different committees as part of her confirmation process for OMB director. Why? Two Senate committees have joint jurisdiction over this position: the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the Senate Budget Committee. 

Another unusual part of the confirmation process for Tanden is that she must submit her tax returns, in addition to the other standard financial disclosures.

Transition in Context: Tie-breaking votes

Vice President Kamala Harris (D) cast her first two tie-breaking votes as president of the Senate on Feb. 5. Both were related to the economic relief bill.

Vice President Mike Pence (R) cast 13 tie-breaking votes during his four years in office, the most since the Van Buren administration in the nineteenth century. As vice president in the Obama administration, Biden did not cast any tie-breaking votes.

The following chart shows the number of tie-breaking votes cast by vice presidents over the past four decades.

What We’re Reading