Joe Biden’s decision to tap several House Democrats for administrative positions is putting Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a politically tough spot, having chiseled away at the party’s already slimming majority and leaving her potentially without enough votes to pass his legislative agenda.
Democrats already were heading into the new Congress with a razor-thin margin over Republicans. But Biden’s overture to a third lawmaker, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., as the history-making first Native American interior secretary, set off a fresh round of pained conversations on what to do. Pelosi will start the Biden era with a narrow majority, 222-211, with a few races still undecided.
But Pelosi’s leadership team has a plan.
“We need to manage something like this,” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip and a top Biden ally, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.
According to Clyburn, an emerging strategy is to stagger the confirmations: Biden would hold off on formally submitting the nominations all at once so the House numbers don’t immediately drop.
Under the plan, timing would unfold over the first several months of the new Congress, ample time for the House to pass the 100-days agenda, a typically important but symbolic, legislative sprint that takes on new importance aligned with Biden’s presidency.
Biden’s first pick from the House, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., would join the administration quickly once the president-elect is inaugurated Jan. 20, Clyburn said. Richmond is poised to become a senior adviser, a position that doesn’t require confirmation by the Senate.
Biden would then wait to submit the other two nominees, Haaland and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who was tapped as housing secretary, until after the March special election in Louisiana to fill Richmond’s seat.
The lawmakers can remain in the House, voting as members, until they are Senate confirmed. Their nominations could be sent one after the other, in the months that follow.
“Just manage it,” Clyburn said.
The three House seats are in Democratic strongholds and expected to be off-limits to Republicans. But special elections can throw curveballs, and the staggered timing would also give the campaigns ample running room to shore up the candidates and races.
Democrats are already deep into political soul-searching after a dismal November outcome for House Democrats. Biden’s victory had short coattails as they lost seats and saw their majority shrink.
Moderate lawmakers and strategists blamed progressives for pushing the party’s message too far leftward; progressives complained it was centrists who ran timid campaigns without a bold message to attract voters.
Pelosi is a master vote counter on the House floor, but even her skills will be tested in the new Congress, starting with her own election for another term as Speaker. If even a few Democratic lawmakers object or peel off, passing bills in the new Congress could be difficult.
A similar scenario has played out in the Senate, where Biden has refrained from naming senators to administrative positions because of the narrow GOP hold.
The Senate breakdown will be 51-48 when the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, with the majority not yet decided until two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. One of the runoffs involves a sitting Republican senator.
In some ways, the closely split House could provide an opportunity for Biden to reach across the aisle and try to cut bipartisan deals with a centrist agenda that could attract some Republicans.
But so far, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has signaled movement in the opposite direction. He wants to use floor procedures as political weaponry to gum up the bills with Republican priorities and force vulnerable Democrats into tough votes.