Despite fears that an equally divided Senate would cause trouble for Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees, of the nine whose confirmations have arrived on the Senate floor, eight have received at least 78 votes (all but Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who got 56). The latest, Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, was confirmed by an impressive 92-7 vote (unsurprisingly, after he won unanimous approval from the Senate Agriculture Committee). But the Vilsack vote exhibited the first tiny crack in the solid edifice of Democratic unity, as Bernie Sanders joined six right-wing Republicans in opposing the confirmation. It was the first Democratic vote cast against a Biden nominee (although Joe Manchin has announced he would vote against OMB nominee Neera Tanden if she makes it that far).
To be clear, Sanders hardly aimed thunderbolts at Vilsack. “I like Tom, and I’ve known him for years,” he told reporters after the vote. “I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture. I think he’ll be fine but not as strong as I would like.”
It appears that precisely because Vilsack’s confirmation wasn’t in doubt Sanders felt entitled to remind the once-and-future USDA secretary to mind his p’s and q’s after overcoming early progressive unhappiness over his ties to Big Ag and his alleged lack of interest in the plight of Black farmers. Both Biden and Vilsack probably deserve credit for assuaging Democrats who were disappointed when Ohio representative Marcia Fudge was passed over for USDA. (She was instead nominated for HUD secretary.) In general, it’s a testament to Team Biden’s political skills that potential left-bent and diversity-based protests against various nominees have not, so far, materialized. With the exception of Tanden, no nominees seem to be in deep trouble. The other potential target of progressive rebels, Commerce secretary-designee Gina Raimondo, won 21-3 approval in the Commerce Committee with all the Democrats supporting her.
During the initial days of the Obama administration, three Cabinet nominations (Tom Daschle for HHS and Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg for Commerce) had to be withdrawn, and Treasury nominee Timothy Geithner was opposed by four Democratic senators (including Sanders). Bill Clinton had enormous problems getting himself an attorney general and overall had five withdrawn nominations.
Maybe Biden or Democrats have learned the right lessons.