senate republicans

How Biden Could (Maybe) Fix His Senate Problem With One Weird Trick

A man who’s intrigued by my modest proposal. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Pat Toomey is a conservative Republican who, in any other advanced democracy, would be considered a far-right fanatic. The Pennsylvania senator does not believe the scientific consensus on climate change — but does believe in gutting public health insurance for the poor, slashing taxes on the wealthy, and honoring Saudi Arabia’s God-given right to access U.S. military aid when committing war crimes in Yemen.

And, under the right circumstances, progressives should consider supporting his nomination to a Cabinet position within Joe Biden’s administration.

At present, the Republican Party holds a slim majority in the U.S. Senate. Thanks to moderate Mainers’ perverse affection for Susan Collins — and (arguably) Cal Cunningham’s perverse affinity for adulterous texting — Democrats failed to win key Senate races in North Carolina and Maine on November 3. Thus, unless the party manages to sweep both of the special Senate elections in Georgia in January, Biden will begin his presidency with Mitch McConnell at the helm of Congress’s upper chamber.

A Republican Senate would be an insurmountable obstacle to an adequate relief and stimulus spending. After four years of prioritizing full employment over deficit reduction under a Republican president, the GOP is already preparing to force austerity on Biden’s watch. As the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune, told the Hill last week, “I think spending, entitlement reform, growth, and the economy are all things that we’re going to have to be focused on next year, and, yeah, I would expect you’ll hear a lot more about that.”

If Senate Republicans choose to strictly delimit aid to struggling small businesses, cash-strapped state governments, laid-off workers, indebted renters, and needy families — while starving the broader economy of the stimulus necessary to bring unemployment back to its pre-COVID level — the human costs will be massive. As of October, America’s poverty rate sat at 11.3 percent, two points higher than it had been before Congress allowed the CARES Act’s enhanced unemployment benefits to abruptly expire. Meanwhile, nearly 10 percent of U.S. families with small children suffered from hunger. And absent congressional action, such deprivation will almost certainly become more widespread as this winter progresses.

The United States has now recorded 100,000 new coronavirus infections each day for 26 straight days. On Saturday, a record 91,635 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19. Epidemiologists are warning that the nation is on pace to see 4,000 COVID deaths a day by year’s end. The combination of such mass death and falling temperatures will likely trigger a spike in small-business bankruptcies, which have already reached catastrophic levels; by some estimates, nearly one-third of all small businesses in the U.S. shuttered for good in 2020.

There are some tailwinds for the economy in 2021, at least, if vaccine disbursement goes as smoothly as hoped. But these will not be sufficient to rapidly repair the extraordinary damage that COVID has done to small businesses, state-government revenues, and the personal finances of America’s least fortunate. Nor will they be enough to spare millions of Americans from the scourge of long-term, involuntary unemployment. At a time when inflation remains below the Federal Reserve’s (arguably too low) 2 percent target, and the U.S. government has little trouble finding buyers for its low-interest debt, prioritizing deficit reduction over full employment would be an act of mindless cruelty.

All of which is to say: The stakes of whether Biden will be able to pass robust stimulus measures through the Senate next year are very high. And, of course, there is much more at stake in Senate control than just stimulus. Democratic control of the upper chamber is a precondition for meaningful action on climate change and health care, and, quite likely, for Biden’s capacity to appoint left-leaning judges (or perhaps even Cabinet officials).

And giving Toomey some form of executive-branch power may be necessary for providing Biden with a Senate majority.

Were Toomey to vacate his seat for any reason, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, would get to install a replacement of his choice, who would then serve until the 2022 midterms. Which means that a Toomey appointment would net Democrats an extra Senate vote for the “honeymoon” phase of Biden’s presidency, while potentially giving them an incumbency advantage in the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate election.

The same would be true of Maine senator Susan Collins, whose ideological leanings aren’t as uniformly reactionary as Toomey’s. So it would certainly be worth floating the idea of an appointment by Collins’s people. But the senator just won a new six-year lease on her seat. And, as a relative “moderate” in a narrowly divided chamber, she’s positioned to exert immense influence over any and all legislation. By contrast, Toomey has already announced his plans to retire in 2022 and might therefore be more amenable to forfeiting his Senate sinecure for a taste of executive power.

If Democrats lose both special elections in Georgia, then elevating Toomey would still leave the party one seat shy of 50 Senate votes (which would be a working majority, as Vice-President Kamala Harris will serve as tiebreaker). But it is quite conceivable that those elections could produce a split decision; in the 2020 general election, a good many Georgia voters balanced their tickets, and Democratic operatives long considered Raphael Warnock’s race more winnable than Jon Ossoff’s.

To be sure, impending retirement plans notwithstanding, persuading Toomey to accept a temporary Cabinet post — at the cost of giving Democrats a Senate majority and thus betraying his own ideological cause while alienating his colleagues — would be a tall order (as would be winning his confirmation, though it’s far from clear that McConnell could block it).

To the extent that such a feat is even possible, it would likely require giving the Pennsylvania senator a top-tier position. And the costs of putting a right-wing hawk at the helm of the Defense Department or CIA could be great (although, Biden’s existing foreign-policy team sees eye to eye with the Toomeys of this world on no small number of issues). Ideally, you’d want to stick Toomey at the head of the Small Business Administration (SBA), a minor agency dedicated to one of the few constituencies that Toomey would like the government to help. But it’s hard to see Toomey handing Chuck Schumer control of the Senate for the chance to run the SBA. Regardless, taking Toomey’s temperature on the prospect would be worth a shot.

Further, it’s conceivable that come mid-January, Toomey could aid the progressive cause by accepting a Cabinet position — without costing his party Senate control. Let’s say Democrats do sweep the Georgia Senate runoffs and secure a 50-vote working majority. In that scenario, the costs of exiting the Senate for an executive-branch post would be considerably lower for Toomey. Swapping two lame-duck years in a Senate minority for the opportunity to lead an executive agency (or even a plum ambassadorship) might just be an attractive proposition. Meanwhile, for Democrats, securing one spare vote in the upper chamber would be quite valuable. With a bare majority, it would only take a single ill-timed illness to doom major legislation (given the advanced age of the Democratic Senate caucus, this isn’t a far-fetched hypothetical). And, of course, in a 50-vote majority, red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin would enjoy veto power over any and all bills. If giving Toomey SBA (or something like it) gains Schumer one more reliable foot soldier, it would be a worthy bargain.

My Pat Toomey (non-)fanfiction may be unrealistic. But considering the stakes, Democrats must turn over every stone in search of a way around the obstacle that the congressional GOP poses to a rapid post-COVID recovery and successful Biden presidency. (At the very least, the party needs to stop entertaining ideas like “Let’s take one of the only House Democrats who managed to win a Trump district this year and pluck her out of Congress, thinning Pelosi’s already tiny majority, because we like the idea of Elissa Slotkin running the CIA.”)

The Liberal Case for Giving Pat Toomey a Cabinet Position