WILMINGTON, Del. — Republicans had been gearing up for the first partisan brawl of the new administration — a battle over whether to confirm the woman widely believed to be on Joe Biden’s shortlist for secretary of state.
They blasted Susan E. Rice as a polarizing throwback to an interventionist style of foreign policy or, as one senator put it, the “Typhoid Mary” of the Obama administration for what they saw as her role in multiple controversies. Some Democrats urged Biden to pick her anyway, to stand by an experienced hand in foreign affairs who could be one of the most prominent Black women in his government.
That fight will have to wait.
Biden’s choice of the lower-profile Antony Blinken, an establishment figure with close ties to the president-elect for decades, is widely seen as less likely to kick up a political storm in the closely divided Senate that will vote on his confirmation.
But while the State nomination, along with several other Cabinet picks rolled out this week, underscore Biden’s intention to govern as a conciliator and not a partisan warrior, some on the left worry that his early moves signal weakness even before he steps into the Oval Office. They say Biden, 78, naively believes the Senate still functions as it did during his 36 years there, with potential for compromise and conciliation.
“To meet Republicans where they are is to meet them in Fantasyland,” said Rebecca Katz, who worked as a top aide to Nevada Democrat Harry M. Reid when he served as Senate majority leader. “We don’t have any time to spare. Sometimes you’ve got to fight. We can’t fold before we’ve had one fight.”
On Capitol Hill, other Democrats are sounding similar warnings.
“There is still plenty of room for bipartisanship, but real bipartisanship, from a position of strength, not begging Republicans to confer bipartisanship upon us if we do things their way,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is worried that Biden’s outreach to the GOP is being met with resistance.
But Biden is making clear through his early moves that he meant it when he said, for months on the campaign trail, that he would turn down the partisan heat in Washington. His team has quietly reached out to Republicans in the House and Senate and expressed public sympathy for their delicate political calculation in weighing the potential backlash from Trump’s base if they acknowledged the election results, according to a person familiar with the strategy who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal thinking and private discussions.
So far, Biden can boast some success with his approach. Along with other olive branches to Republicans, he backed away from filing a lawsuit to force the General Services Administration to release resources for his transition. The GSA instead relented after a pressure campaign that came first from Democrats, and then Republicans, along with back-to-back-to-back losses in state courts for the president’s attempt to overturn the election results.
“I’m making a judgment based on many years of experience and how to get things done with the opposition,” Biden said recently when asked why he had declined to pursue a legal challenge against Trump’s refusal to cooperate with a transition.
The tension between picking fights and pursuing conciliation so far is typified by questions about Rice, who was a finalist in Biden’s vice-presidential search and was mentioned by Biden allies as a possible secretary of state when she didn’t get that post.
“Susan will land in another key job,” said one Biden insider. The person declined to say whether the position would be one requiring Senate confirmation.
The person also scoffed at the notion that Rice was set to get the job but for Biden’s reluctance to launch a fight with Republican senators.
“Tony was always the choice. Always,” the person said, referring to Blinken. “Anyone who thinks Tony was not going to get this doesn’t know Joe Biden.”
Rice was a leading candidate for secretary of state during Obama’s second term. The Stanford University-educated foreign policy phenom had risen quickly in the diplomatic ranks, becoming one of the country’s youngest assistant secretaries of state.
But she withdrew from consideration amid furor over her initial comments about the 2012 armed attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya — which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya — that relied on what turned out to be inaccurate talking points supplied by the White House and CIA. Eight congressional panels investigated the events; none found that Rice had been deliberately misleading. .
Instead, Obama named Rice as his second-term national security adviser, a job that does not require Senate confirmation. She worked closely with Biden as vice president, often hashing out policy ideas with him in the West Wing.
Before the Blinken selection, GOP senators lined up to oppose Rice, even as they refused to fully acknowledge Biden’s victory. It was Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, who called her the “Typhoid Mary” of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that “she’s a hard person to confirm.”
Biden’s common-ground approach was part of his pitch to America — and how he worked during a Senate career that preceded his two terms as vice president.
“I’ve known him a long time, and I don’t think guns blazing is ever going to be his style,” said Biden’s friend and donor John Morgan. “He is an institutionalist. He’s friendly with both sides. And I think the reason he was chosen to be vice president was because of his relationships.”
As he awaited official recognition of his victory, Biden has showcased bipartisan meetings. Speaking to a group that included Republican governors, he vowed a bipartisan assault on the coronavirus. During a meeting with mayors, he noted that there are not “blue cities” or “red cities.” A panel of medical experts he named to advise him on the pandemic included two former Trump administration officials.
Biden’s attempts at unity offer a direct contrast to the way in which Trump whooshed into the presidency four years ago, condemning the Washington establishment, making a series of early Cabinet decisions that were highly controversial and working frenetically to undo the actions of his Democratic predecessor.
While Biden is expected to take on issues unpopular on the right via executive order, such as mitigating climate change and liberalizing immigration rules, his early focus will be on containing the virus and bolstering the economy — two issues where there has been recent history of bipartisan agreement.
“I am hopeful that I’m going to be able to get cooperation from our Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House, as well as the governors, to build a consensus as to how we proceed when we do,” Biden said recently.
The conciliatory tone goes beyond just the divide between parties.
When talking about his then-unnamed pick for treasury secretary last week, he eagerly pointed out that they would be “accepted by all elements of the Democratic Party.” Former Federal Reserve chair Janet L. Yellen, who has been tapped for the position, fits that bill.
Biden’s recent meeting with national security officials included retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who clashed with Biden over troop levels in Afghanistan and was fired by President Barack Obama in 2010 after he disparaged administration officials, including Biden, in comments to a reporter for Rolling Stone.
On Monday, Biden named former secretary of state and Senate colleague John F. Kerry to be a special presidential envoy for climate, adding him to the National Security Council — showing he has no hard feelings about a February cellphone call in which Kerry, then in Iowa as a surrogate for Biden, was overheard musing about jumping into the Democratic primary.
Part of Biden’s calculation is the reality he faces in a closely divided Senate — a chamber now in Republican hands. Even if Democrats win both of Georgia’s runoff elections on Jan. 5, the chamber would split 50-50, giving him the smallest possible edge with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala D. Harris.
That will require maintaining some relationships with Republicans and keeping the Democratic left happy. Already, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the liberal leader who rallied his forces on behalf of Biden during the general election, is worried that Biden’s posture to reach out to the right will leave the left wing of the party untended.
“It seems to me pretty clear that progressive views need to be expressed within a Biden administration,” Sanders said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be, for example, enormously insulting if Biden put together a ‘team of rivals’ — and there’s some discussion that that’s what he intends to do — which might include Republicans and conservative Democrats — but which ignored the progressive community.”
Sanders is hoping that Biden will tap him to be labor secretary, according to a person familiar with his ambitions, although that could reignite GOP campaign talking points that Biden is captive to the left. Biden avoided a similar fight by skipping over Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as treasury secretary, a position she sought, according to several Warren allies.
“You can only pick one or two battles,” said a Biden insider, explaining Biden’s approach to nominations.
Biden, in an NBC interview Tuesday night, indicated he was reluctant to select Democratic senators or House members for his Cabinet because of the potential impact on the party’s legislative strength.
Democratic members urged Biden not to dial back any Cabinet choices.
“He should go by the person that he feels is the most qualified,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) “Don’t worry about the political aspects of the Republicans, many of whom still have not acknowledged that he’s the president of the United States.”
Rather than gearing up for a fight, Biden has said he expects some back-and-forth with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when it comes to Cabinet nominations.
“I take McConnell at his word,” Biden said recently when discussing his process for making selections. “I understand he said that he will make it clear who he’s prepared to support or not support and that’s a negotiation that I’m sure we’ll have.”
Last week, Biden’s newly minted chief of staff, Ron Klain, offered a more traditional posture on the Cabinet, saying that Biden would not defer to GOP leaders on his choices.
“On these executive branch nominations, these are the choices for the president to make, and then the Senate needs to act on those choices,” Klain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
However, some Democrats have been quick to point out that Republicans are showing no indication they’ll work with Biden — even as he tries to work with them.
Some Democratic operatives see Biden’s current strategy as an effort to claim the higher ground with the American public and predict it will be short-lived.
“Biden’s entire message — which I did not enjoy, but I think I understand the political calculation — has always been seeking cooperation as part of his ‘healing America mission,’ ” said Adam Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff to Reid. “It’s fine for Republicans to be the ones to shoot first and break any sort of cease-fire that may exist.”
Karoun Demirjian and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
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