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Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls

The Hill logo The Hill 11/28/2020 Alexander Bolton
Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio are posing for a picture: Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls © Bonnie Cash Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls

Republican senators with an eye on running for the White House in 2024 are gearing up to battle against President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks, setting up a debate within the Senate GOP conference over how hard to push back on Biden's nominees.

While the Senate traditionally gives a new president deference to fill his administration's senior ranks, the environment has changed after four years of bitter partisan fighting under President Trump.

Four Senate Republicans with potential White House aspirations in 2024 have already signaled their opposition to Biden's picks, setting the tone for a contentious debate when Biden submits his nominees before what is expected to be a GOP-controlled Senate next year.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday said Alejandro Mayorkas, whom Biden has tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security, "is disqualified" because of controversy over his role in a decision to provide green cards to Chinese and Thai citizens who pledged funds to a Las Vegas casino.

"Alejandro Mayorkas was found by Barack Obama's Inspector General to be guilty of selling Green Cards to Chinese nationals on behalf of rich, democratic donors," Cotton tweeted.

"He is disqualified from leading the Department of Homeland Security," he added.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that Mayorkas ran into Senate Republican opposition after he was nominated to the No. 2 post at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration because of concerns he provided favored treatment to the Sahara casino in Las Vegas and other companies seeking investment through the EB-5 program. The program provides green cards to foreign investors.

Mayorkas at the time disputed the allegations and was confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate 54-41 on Dec. 20, 2013.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Tuesday took a shot at the list of people Biden announced he would nominate for national security positions in his administration: Antony Blinken, Biden's pick to serve as secretary of State; Mayorkas; Avril Haines, Biden's nominee to serve as director of national intelligence; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Jake Sullivan, the nominee to serve as national security adviser; and John Kerry, the proposed special presidential envoy for climate.

Hawley slammed them as "a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts - and #BigTech sellouts" on Twitter.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who ran for president in 2016, told Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto that "on foreign policy, I am very worried about that there will be a big shift, and it's back to those who believe that we should militarily intervene abroad in a big way."

Blinken served as minority staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Biden chaired, in 2002, when the Senate voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. Biden was one of 29 Democrats to vote for the resolution.

Paul said he thinks Blinken is a bad choice to lead the State Department and said he would ask the nominee when he comes before the Senate whether he will apologize for his support of the Iraq War.

Paul said he also wanted to ask Blinken what lessons he learned from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and whether he still believes regime change in the Middle East is a good idea.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also ran for president in 2016, slammed Biden's Cabinet picks as "polite & orderly caretakers of America's decline."

"I support American greatness and I have no interest in returning to the 'normal' that left us dependent on China," he tweeted.

Republican strategists say Biden's selections for his Cabinet and other senior administration posts will give ambitious lawmakers such as Cotton, Hawley, Paul and Rubio a chance to define his presidency early.

It will also give them an opportunity to gain attention from Republican voters, activists and donors.

"You are going to have some jockeying for president, no doubt. But you're also going to have some ideological fault lines where some Republicans are going to look at these nominees and just find them completely unqualified," said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.

"The president gets a lot of deference in his picks, but you're going to have some that had a record during the Obama years that are unacceptable to Republicans, and the big question is, are there enough Republicans to block the nominees?" he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took some heat earlier this month when he told reporters during a video conference call that Biden "deserves a Cabinet" and said he was open to a potential compromise on immigration reform.

The same day Graham made his comment, Fox News host Tucker Carlson blasted Graham.

"On the issues that matter, Lindsey Graham immediately ran away from the ideas he claimed to support and said he'd be happy to sell out his voters with an amnesty deal, like within hours of the election," he said.

Other conservative media heavyweights are lining up against Biden's Cabinet picks.

Fox News's Sean Hannity tweeted Wednesday that Biden's nominees "want reversal of Trump's 'America First' policies."

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump ally and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, in a Fox News interview said that Biden's nominees "likely were involved in the dirty dossier," referring to the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer that led to a special counsel investigation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

While few Senate Republicans are likely to go as far as Nunes in trying to link Biden's picks to the FBI's investigation of the Trump campaign in 2016 and the special counsel investigation that followed, the bitter fumes of those battles will still be in the air when the Senate takes up the nominees next year.

"There is no question that the race is on to seize the Republican Party mantle should Trump not run in 2024," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, who called Biden's first round of Cabinet selections "Obama 2.0."

He said taking "a whack" at Biden's nominees is a way "to consolidate the party's base."

O'Connell said Hawley, Cotton, Paul, Rubio and other 2024 hopefuls could influence the broader Senate Republican conference if they launch an all-out resistance effort against Biden's picks.

"There is a lot of room for these folks to define Biden because Biden has never defined himself other than he rode shotgun with Barack Obama," he said.

"I think a lot of these Republicans will want to be on the record singing from the same hymn book when it comes to the sort of globalist foreign policy that Biden is talking about," he added.

Biden, for example, plans to reenter the United States into the Paris climate agreement and this week named former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the principal architects of that accord, as his special presidential envoy for climate.

Biden's picks are likely to get 'yes' votes from a handful of GOP senators, such as moderate Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

But the major question is whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will schedule votes on nominees who can win support from only a fraction of his conference. McConnell has made it a policy not to put legislation on the Senate floor that divides is conference.

Will the GOP leader adopt a different policy for nominees and judicial picks? So far McConnell has stayed largely quiet on the subject.

Republicans will control at least 50 Senate seats in 2021 and are favored to be in the majority next year. Democrats, however, would flip the Senate if they win two runoff races in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5.

The last time the Senate and White House were controlled by different parties at the start of a new president's term was 1989, when George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency after Ronald Reagan's eight-year tenure in the White House.

Democrats also controlled the Senate from June 2001 to November 2002, during George W. Bush's first term, after the late Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) switched parties five months into the president's time in office.

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