It was April of 2009 when then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius received a phone call from the Obama White House. A plane was on its way to bring her to Washington to be sworn in as the Health and Human Services secretary.
Sebelius was confused. She hadn’t yet been confirmed. Only after that happened had she planned to resign as governor and await her lieutenant governor’s swearing in.
“Maybe you don’t understand,” Sebelius said she was told. “There’s a plane in the air. The president would like you on that plane.”
Obama officials viewed the HHS confirmation as an emergency. The H1N1 virus was rapidly spreading across the country, but the HHS post was still vacant months into his first term. The first nominee, then-Sen. Tom Daschle, had to withdraw when his confirmation was held up over tax issues.
After Sebelius was sworn in she was rushed to the Situation Room for a conference call with the World Health Organization and other world leaders about the virus that was quickly moving across North American borders.
Today, Sebelius uses her Obama-era anecdote to underscore the urgency behind confirming Xavier Becerra as HHS secretary in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been exponentially more deadly than H1N1.
“This is a crisis that makes what I was dealing with a walk in the park. There is an emergency about this, the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said Sebelius, who ended up leaving a note resigning her governorship upon confirmation. “If we’ve ever had a time to have a rapid confirmation of a leader of that whole effort, it’s now,” she said in an interview.
Sebelius is just one of droves of Democrats taking part in an all-hands-on-deck push to assure smooth confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks. They are pointing to the Covid-19 crisis, and the need for an organized and smooth vaccine rollout, to argue for a speedy confirmation process that the Biden transition expects will begin even before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Already, Biden has tapped a vast network of current and former elected officials, interest groups, CEOs and others to take part in lobbying efforts for his Cabinet picks. That has included dispatching nominees to engage in Zoom meetings with interest groups, amplifying transition messaging on social media and reaching out to powerful Senate members who will be key to the confirmation.
The Biden transition team, which is expecting that at least some confirmation hearings will begin before the Jan. 20 inauguration, has already had hundreds of conversations with Hill members and staff and taken part in dozens of meetings with members of Congress. Before Cabinet names go public, notifications go out to bipartisan leadership, relevant committee offices and home state members of Congress. Once they are announced, nominees are making dozens of calls, including to Republicans, who have signaled they could put up resistance to some of picks.
Much of the groundwork has been laid beforehand. Biden himself and his team of advisers are in contact with a regular network of outside confidants who have offered up possible names. That includes former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said he’s spoken with several members of Biden’s inner circle, including incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, transition team leader Ted Kaufman and senior adviser Steve Ricchetti about Cabinet appointments.
“I’ve done my very best to give Ted Kaufman … the names [of potential nominees] that I think are appropriate,” Reid said. Reid said the only nominee where he’s seen significant pushback is Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
Reid said the fact that Tanden is Indian American and a woman could make it trickier for both Republicans and progressives to block her nomination.
“Biden knew that going into it and there are other things that you can look at to satisfy the people screaming loud about that,” Reid said of opposition from the left flank of the Democratic party. “It would be a mistake for the left to go after her. That would not go down well.”
Biden’s Cabinet rollouts have hit some turbluence along the way, including facing blowback about a lack of diversity early on.
One strategy to stave off major issues is hearing out interest groups, who’ve helped weigh in on potential nominees and policy suggestions before Biden moved forward with a pick. On climate issues for instance, David Kieve, who acted as climate ambassador for the Biden campaign, worked with environmental justice leaders, labor unions and other organizations on personnel and policy.
“It speaks volumes to the transition’s efforts to be inclusive and to be in regular contact and also to their prioritization of climate solutions and environmental justice,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.
The Black Economic Alliance has also kept in regular contact with the Biden team and has celebrated some of his picks, after expressing disappointment early on over a slate of White House advisers who lacked diversity. The group is still lobbying heavily for the inclusion of African Americans in the Cabinet and in senior adviser roles.
Republican senators will almost certainly be harder to win over. But unless Democrats win both Senate run-offs in Georgia Jan. 5, Cabinet confirmations will hinge on winning at least some GOP support. Already Republican leaders are threatening to make Biden’s Cabinet nominees “run the gauntlet,” in the words of Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wy.).
Referring to the slower pace of confirmations for President Donald Trump’s nominees compared to those in previous administrations, Barrasso said on Fox News Sunday that his GOP colleagues “are not going to forget what happened with President Trump’s administration and the delayed process that went through it.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had recently made similar remarks.
Biden’s transition team, however, is aiming to gin up public pressure on Republicans to confirm his picks. The PR campaign includes glossy biographical videos about its secretary-designates that aim to amplify their qualifications and personal stories while controlling the messages around them. The thinking behind the videos and social media accounts is that the nominees can engage with the public and begin answering why they were chosen.
Nominees operate their own Twitter accounts, including Secretary of State pick Tony Blinken (who, as it happens, has also recorded his own songs that are on Spotify) and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
The Democratic National Committee’s war room is coordinating directly with the transition nominations teams — and has sent materials on Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development nominee Marcia Fudge and Becerra. In a news blast Tuesday, the DNC highlighted media reports about Becerra’s professional management and qualifications for the job. Planned Parenthood has jumped into the fight to advocate on behalf of Becerra, as has Protect our Care. Biden’s team is also turning to Republicans to speak on Becerra’s behalf, including former colleagues who they hope will blunt more recent GOP criticisms that he’s too partisan to serve in the health department role.
“You’re always going to have people who are up for nomination with whom you’re going to disagree on matters of policy. But that shouldn’t be the only criteria one uses to judge a nominee. You have to look at the whole person and the whole package,” said Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served with Becerra and has been in touch with Biden transition officials about speaking to his personal experience with the Democratic Cabinet nominee.
In an interview, Dent said he considers Becerra “qualified and capable” for the role and talked up his steady demeanor, which he suggested didn’t come off as strident or overly partisan. “I always thought he was a good decent guy when I served with him in House. I liked him, respected him and thought he was knowledgeable. And I think he’s worthy of confirmation.”
Sebelius has also had conversations with Becerra about her own confirmation as well as the job itself. And she has had talks with the team working around his nomination.
But the push goes well beyond Becerra.
Robert A. McDonald, former Veterans Affairs secretary under Obama is making calls advocating for Biden’s new VA pick, former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Treasury Secretary-designee Janet Yellen and Deputy Treasury Secretary-designee Wally Adeyemo have met with interest groups across the ideological spectrum asking for their ideas and comments. After one of the meetings, Adeyemo even gave out his cell phone number.
“They emphasized that it was important that this wasn’t the only meeting and wasn’t the last meeting,” said Alicia Garza, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter and principal at Black to the Future Action Fund, who took part in one of the meetings.
Also in on the effort is Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota and former Senate majority leader, who has spoken with several Biden Cabinet nominees and offered to place calls to former Senate colleagues on their behalf.
Daschle said he’s optimistic about the chances for Biden’s picks. “Just in talking to colleagues on the Hill, I think there is a sense that because of Joe’s relationships with so many members, and given the circumstances, I suspect that — while none of them ought to be just assumed — there is a real opportunity here for the Biden administration to get off to a good start. We’ll see.”