Biden builds team for Senate confirmation battles

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President-elect Joe Biden hasn’t nominated anyone for his Cabinet yet, but he’s assembling the team to get his future picks confirmed.

With Republicans favored to retain their majority in the Senate next year, Biden’s Cabinet is poised to become the new administration’s first big political battle. The confirmation votes will be an early test of the president-elect’s ability to maneuver in the Senate and work with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will maintain control of the chamber as long as Republicans win one of two Senate run-offs in Georgia.

To navigate those fights, Biden has tapped Jen Psaki, President Barack Obama’s former White House communications director, to lead a team overseeing the confirmation process, according to a list obtained by POLITICO. Olivia Dalton, a former Biden Senate aide and campaign consultant, will head communications and Reema Dodin, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin’s floor director, will take the lead on legislative strategy.

Biden has also dispatched his campaign’s rapid response director, Andrew Bates, for a leadership role on the team, along with Sean Savett and Saloni Sharma, who worked on Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns, respectively. Jorge Neri, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, will also be the deputy outreach director on confirmations. The “war room” operation will expand over the next week with the addition of Biden campaign staff and volunteers from Capitol Hill, according to the transition.

They will work with Stephanie Valencia, who is overseeing Biden transition outreach, plus Louisa Terrell, who is managing the transition’s congressional affairs, but the nominations team will have their own communications, outreach and legislative personnel to get Biden’s nominees over the finish line.

The new team is also looking to shake up some of the conventions of the Cabinet nomination process, including the code of silence that has traditionally surrounded nominees. Instead, transition staff intend to introduce Biden’s Cabinet picks to the American people before their Senate hearings, which could include media blitzes to build up public support. There’s a risk, however, that the increased exposure could lead to embarrassing gaffes or missteps by nominees.

In less polarized times, senators were more willing to cross party lines and confirm the president’s Cabinet choices.

There is more uncertainty now. During the Trump administration, some Democrats with presidential ambitions saw an advantage in voting against as many of Trump’s nominees as possible — New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand later bragged on the campaign trail that she voted against more of Trump’s nominees than any other Senate Democrat. A similar dynamic could play out in 2021, given the number of Senate Republicans eyeing a 2024 presidential run.

Biden, however, is intent on trying to restore some of the Senate’s erstwhile comity. The transition told POLITICO that they “are operating under the belief that the Senate will be under substantial pressure from the public and voters across the country — as well as from their allies in the business community and throughout Washington — to take action on the economy and public health crises, to confirm nominees and rebuild federal agencies with competent public servants.”

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