Special: President-Elect Joe Biden’s Latest Historic Cabinet Picks

Dec. 18, 2020 AT 10:52 p.m. EST

President-elect Joe Biden announced more Cabinet picks this week, including several historic selections. Biden selected Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Transportation and Interior Departments, respectively. Buttigieg would be the first LGBTQ Cabinet secretary while Haaland would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. The panel discussed the president’s Cabinet and what it says about the Biden administration’s priorities.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

As he works from Delaware and prepares to take office next month, President-elect Joe Biden continues to build his Cabinet with some key announcements this week and a few slots that remain unfilled. One big headline was the nomination of former South Bend, Indiana Mayor and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as secretary of transportation. If confirmed, Buttigieg would make history as the first openly LGBTQ Cabinet secretary. Here is what the president-elect and his nominee had to say.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The Biden-Harris Cabinet will be an historic Cabinet, a Cabinet that looks like America.

MR. COSTA: Buttigieg was not the only historic pick this week. Biden is now set to nominate New Mexico lawmaker Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department. She would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. In addition to Buttigieg and Haaland, Biden also picked Michael Regan, the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to head the EPA. He would be the first Black man to lead that agency. Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor, is set to be the energy secretary; and Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the EPA, will be a senior advisor to Biden on climate change.

Joining me to discuss these picks: Rachel Scott, White House correspondent for ABC News; Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; and Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for National Public Radio and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. Welcome to you all.

Rachel, begin with you. You’ve been tracking the Biden team, the transition. Why Buttigieg?

RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, well, listen, this is – I don’t think this was a big surprise to a lot of people. We know that the president-elect, Joe Biden, was considering Buttigieg for a certain position. I also think that choosing Buttigieg for this, you noted the historic nature of this announcement, it really underscores what Biden has long promised, that he wants to have the most diverse Cabinet and one of the most diverse administrations in American history. He also has nine women that are up for these Cabinet positions. If all of them are confirmed, he would break the record there, breaking a record that was previously done by President Bill Clinton and President Obama, and so he’s really underscoring his commitment to diversity here and to really building an administration, building a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of America.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what are you hearing from the Biden team?

JONATHAN SWAN: Well, they’ve been trying to thread a lot of different needles. I mean, just look at all the different cross pressures that they’re facing. Number one, they’ve got the diversity question and they’ve got a lot of pressure from people like Representative Clyburn and the NAACP and a lot of African American lawmakers who are, obviously, pushing him to make sure that you’re not just relegating people of color to HUD but you’re actually giving them really significant roles in the Cabinet, and he is – he has delivered on that with Lloyd Austin at DOD and you just mentioned Regan. But the other pressure is from the left, and so the progressive left have basically been biting their tongue. He hadn’t done anything – he hadn’t crossed any of their red lines. They said no Rahm Emanuel, no way; no Bruce Reed, the deficit-hawk friend of Biden’s, no way, no how, we’ll go crazy. So he didn’t set them off on that. And then Deb Haaland is a genuinely – for the progressive left, a genuinely exciting pick. She was their choice, and they are enthused by that. It’s a really big deal for progressives and it’s the first Cabinet pick that Biden’s made that has really – is someone who is of the progressive left and excites the progressive left.

MR. COSTA: I was watching her campaign ads today, Sue, and she talks about her support for Medicare for All. She’s clearly, as Jonathan said, on the left wing of the Democratic Party. But Sue, when you’re on Capitol Hill and you’re talking to your sources, particularly your Republican sources, how do they view these picks? Are all of these picks likely to be easily confirmed, and if not who’s kind of at the top of the GOP target list?

SUSAN DAVIS: That’s a good question. You know, I think sometimes the ones that get caught up in troubles are the ones we don’t know until they start going through the process and have to go through the background check process. You know, historically, every president loses a couple nominees to the background vetting process. On the whole, I would say that Biden’s nominees have been relatively warmly received by the Senate overall, not a lot of pushback or surprises. The one that a lot of Senate Republicans have raised red flags about is Neera Tanden, who’s a longtime Democratic operative who, you know, quite frankly, had a long list of mean tweets towards Senate Republicans, who they don’t feel like necessarily inclined to approve her to a job. Now, there’s a certain irony here, I realize, of Senate Republicans suddenly being offended about mean tweets, but she’s really the one that I have heard the most that she’s going to have a really tough time, and again it goes back to that Senate question, you know. This is why so much is at stake in that Georgia Senate race. If Democrats were somehow able to pull this out and take control of the Senate, Joe Biden’s going to have a lot easier time getting these nominees through the chamber than if he has to confront a Senate Republican majority.

MR. COSTA: So the Cabinet’s one level of the Biden transition, and Jonathan, you had an article this week on the Biden camp. It was about an interview with Glamour magazine and incoming White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who used an explicit term to attack Republicans in that story. You write that advisors feared it could hurt Biden’s efforts at bipartisanship and her comments would give Republicans ammunition against the president-elect, to the point Sue was making. What is going on behind the scenes in the wake of that interview?

MR. SWAN: Well, it’s not that Biden’s – people on Biden’s team disagree with her sentiment. She called – I’m not going to say the word –

MR. COSTA: Please don’t.

MR. SWAN: – but she called Republicans an expletive – no, I don’t want to get kicked off your show, Bob – and then she described Mitch McConnell as “terrible.” I would say that’s a 99 percent view in Joe Biden’s team, but the problem is the guy they work for, Joe Biden, genuinely believes, and say this, that Republicans are not bad people, that he feels that he has these skills over – built over so many years in the Senate that he could actually reach across the aisle and do a deal. So even if his team are very, very skeptical about that, he’s publicly saying, you know, we’re going to heal the soul of America, so there was a lot of frustration on the team when she made those comments because it undercut his public rhetoric – not only his public rhetoric, but actually his private views as well.

MR. COSTA: But Rachel, it also shows some of the skeptics of Biden in the Democratic Party that some people close to him at a high level on his staff, they have a little edge. They may like that.

MS. SCOTT: Yeah, it does, and you know, she obviously said she maybe could have chosen a little bit of better words – (laughs) – to express her sentiment there. And you know, I think that when we’re talking about what this does, you know, for Biden and where he sort of goes next – and all eyes are sort of on the Senate, too, and how important that race is going to be. And I do want to just underscore even some things that are being floated around when you’re talking about Democrats on the Hill having concern with how he’s sort of pulling together his Cabinet, possibly pulling away folks from Congress, and worried about whether or not they’re going to have to stagger some of these confirmation hearings throughout the course of the year – obviously, some of the calendar has already been set for the beginning of the year – just to make sure that they can get them all through, until the race is called and decided in the Senate.

MR. COSTA: That’s a great point. Sue, when you’re roaming around the House of Representatives, you’re looking at a narrowly divided chamber right now. And if the Biden transition team keeps plucking members from the House Democratic conference, that majority for Speaker Pelosi could only get smaller in the coming weeks and months. How is that changing the dynamics inside of the House?

MS. DAVIS: Well, I think he’s maxed out on House Democrats. I don’t think he can take any more without actually losing Nancy Pelosi the majority. So he might have his three. You know, the most important thing I think to Nancy Pelosi is he picked Democrats that come from safe Democratic seats. So there will be vacancies once they get through the confirmation process and leave the House, but I don’t think there’s any – there’s no concern among Democrats that these are three seats that are going to be in contention for Republicans. So that’s important.

But your point is right. You know, the first 100 days of a new administration is an incredibly important time. And Nancy Pelosi has essentially zero room for error. I’m not convinced that a five-seat majority or a two-seat majority is that much of a difference. But she has two paths. There’s only two paths forward. She either needs absolute Democratic unity to get anything through the House, or she’s going to need Republicans.

And the Joe Biden path suggests that he’s OK with bringing on some Republicans to try to get things done. That is not traditionally necessarily how Nancy Pelosi has wanted to advance legislation, and certainly not the legislation that Democrats are going to want to prioritize in those first 100 days, or even the first year of the Biden administration. So it’s going to be tough. The legislative muscle that it’s going to take to actually get anything to Joe Biden’s desk of any type of lift is tremendous.

MR. COSTA: An intriguing figure in the House, Jonathan, is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has now seen his own power base expanded, gained seats in the 2020 election in the House. What’s your read on McCarthy and how he will handle 2021 and Biden?

MR. SWAN: Well, it’s going to be interesting because, yeah, you’re right, he does have increased power. But him and Pelosi have an appalling relationship – I would say nonexistent. And she’s been in meetings, I’m told, quite dismissive of him. So I don’t really have any expectation that they’re going to have – you know, forge some terrific working relationship. Kevin McCarthy is obviously thinking every – waking up and thinking every day about how to flip the House in 2022 and what he needs to do to make himself speaker. So he’ll be looking to undercut her and harm her political fortunes at every turn.

MR. COSTA: Rachel, what else should we expect in the coming weeks before the holidays in terms of Biden announcements? Any tea leaves in your – in your reporting world?

MS. SCOTT: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, sources close to the Biden transition team are obviously expecting to roll out more announcements. But we could see some of these Cabinet picks stretch a little bit further past the holiday season and into the beginning of the year. You know, they told us to buckle up at the start of December as he continues to roll out his administration and build – and build his team. I think all eyes are on who he does pick for attorney general. We know that he’s under immense pressure to maybe choose someone of color for that position. That is really one of the last big roles that he has yet to fill. And all eyes – and sort of the jockeying behind the scenes – whether it’s Sally Yates or Merrick Garland – from Democrats, moderates and the progressives, trying to make sure that their voices are represented in Biden’s administration.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, do you have any thoughts on that, based on your reporting? Are they actually going to pluck someone off the D.C. Circuit in Judge Garland? Do they go with Senator Jones, who was an early supporter of Biden? Somebody else?

MR. SWAN: So it’s always hard to tell when you’re being spun by people. And so I’m – I’ve been told by several Biden people: You know, you guys are underrating the chances that Merrick Garland has, and he really wants someone who is a boy scout in that position, who is seen to be above reproach. You know, obviously his son, Hunter Biden, is under federal investigation. That’s going to be something potentially that the new – unless there’s action before January 20th – something that the new attorney general is going to have to handle.

Doug Jones is a friend of Biden’s dating back more than – I think 30 years – more than 30 years, actually. He worked – I think he worked on Biden’s ’88 campaign. So it’s going to be a stretch to believe that he is some, you know, separate, removed, boy scout, you know, above reproach in that sense – I mean, from a public perception standpoint. I’m not impugning his integrity. So they’ve got to weigh all of that. And frankly, I don’t know where he comes down. The last conversation I had a few days ago with a Biden official, it seemed like he really hadn’t made up his mind. But that’s all I have on that.

MR. COSTA: Any final thoughts, Sue? What you’re watching in Congress as the stimulus negotiations continue this weekend?

MS. DAVIS: You know, I think one thing I’m looking at is to see how much of a sort of centrist victory this really is seen as, and if this is kind of a breakthrough for what the new Congress could be. It’s long be the hope of the middle that they could be the ones that drive the agenda in Congress. It’s usually leadership top-down. But I think we’re headed into a really unique, weird mix of a Congress that the power dynamics that we’ve been used to might look a lot different in the Joe Biden administration.

MR. COSTA: I was at – on Capitol Hill this week. Someone told me, a source, it’s Manchin’s moment. I said, we’ll see. We’ll see.

MS. DAVIS: (Laughs.) We’ll see. We’ll see.

MR. COSTA: And we’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Rachel, Jonathan, and Susan for their time and insights.

Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We always give you a behind-the-scenes look at all things Washington and Washington Week. You’ll also receive a weekly note from me.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.

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