Near the end of his well-crafted victory speech Saturday night, Joe Biden decried “the refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another.” He went on to say that “we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate. That’s the choice I’ll make. And I call on the Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—to make that choice with me.”
If Biden chooses to “cooperate” with Mitch McConnell, that choice is likely to set off a political war between the new administration and the Democratic Party’s progressive base.
After the election, citing “people familiar with the matter,” Axios reported that “Republicans’ likely hold on the Senate is forcing Joe Biden’s transition team to consider limiting its prospective Cabinet nominees to those who Mitch McConnell can live with.” Yet this spin flies in the face of usual procedures for Senate confirmation of Cabinet nominees.
“Traditionally, an incoming president is given wide berth to pick his desired team,” Axios noted. But “a source close to McConnell tells Axios a Republican Senate would work with Biden on centrist nominees but no ‘radical progressives’ or ones who are controversial with conservatives. . . . This political reality could result in Biden having a more centrist Cabinet. It also gives Biden a ready excuse to reject left-of-center candidates, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who have the enthusiastic backing of progressives.”
Let’s be clear: The extent to which Biden goes along with such a scenario of craven capitulation will be the extent to which he has shafted progressives before his presidency has even begun.
And let’s be clear about something else: Biden doesn’t have to defer to Mitch McConnell on Cabinet appointees. Biden has powerful leverage—if he wants to use it. As outlined in a memo released days ago by Demand Progress and the Revolving Door Project, “President Biden will be under no obligation to hand Mitch McConnell the keys to his Cabinet.”
The memo explains that Biden could fill his Cabinet by using the Vacancies Act—which “provides an indisputably legal channel to fill Senate-confirmed positions on a temporary basis when confirmations are delayed.”
In addition, “Biden can adjourn Congress and make recess appointments”—since Article II Section 3 of the Constitution “gives the President the power to adjourn Congress ‘to such time as he shall think proper’ whenever the House and Senate disagree on adjournment”—and after 10 days of recess, Biden could appoint Cabinet members.
In other words, if there’s a political will, there would be ways to overcome the anti-democratic obstructionism of Mitch McConnell. But does Biden really have the political will?
McConnell is the foremost practitioner of ruthless right-wing hardball on Capitol Hill. During the last two administrations, the Senate’s majority leader has done enormous damage to democracy and the lives of many millions of people. Why in the hell should Biden be vowing to cooperate with the likes of McConnell?
Eighteen months ago, campaigning in New Hampshire, Biden proclaimed: “The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
It was an absurd statement back then. Now, it’s an ominous one.
Anyone who’s expecting an epiphany from McConnell after Trump leaves the White House is ignoring how the Senate majority leader behaved before Trump was in the White House—doing things like refusing to allow any Senate consideration of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during the last 10 months of the Obama administration.
McConnell has made it crystal clear that he’s a no-holds-barred ideologue who’ll stoop as low as he can to thwart democracy and social progress. Cooperating with him would be either a fool’s errand or an exercise in capitulation. And, when it comes to congressional workings, Biden is no fool.
Yes, Republicans are likely to have a Senate majority for at least the next two years. But President Biden will have a profound choice: to either fight them or “cooperate” with them. If Biden’s idea of the art of the deal is to shaft progressives, he and Kamala Harris are going to have a colossal party insurrection on their hands.
The young voters and African-American voters who were largely responsible for Biden’s win did not turn out in such big numbers so he could turn around and cave in to the same extremist Republican Party that propelled much of their enthusiasm for voting Biden in the first place. Overall, as polling has made clear, it was abhorrence of Trump—more than enthusiasm for Biden—that captivated Biden voters.
A CNBC poll, released last week, found that 54 percent of swing-state Biden voters “said they are primarily voting against Trump” rather than in favor of Biden. For Biden to embark on his presidency by collaborating with the party of Trump would be more than tone-deaf. It would be a refusal to put up a fight against the very forces that so many Biden voters were highly motivated to defeat.
Progressives are disgusted when Democratic leaders set out to ask Republicans for part of a loaf and end up getting crumbs. If Joe Biden is willing to toss aside the progressive base of his own party in order to cooperate with the likes of Mitch McConnell, the new president will be starting a fierce civil war inside his own party.
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Norman Solomon is co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death“ and “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.” He is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.