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Sanders, Warren under scrutiny as Biden weighs Cabinet picks

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WILMINGTON, Del. — Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren, lead­ers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s left wing, are at risk of being exclud­ed from the senior ranks of Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden’s admin­is­tra­tion as the incom­ing pres­i­dent bal­ances the demands of his party’s pro­gres­sive base against the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of a nar­row­ly divid­ed Sen­ate.

The lib­er­al New Eng­land sen­a­tors remain inter­est­ed in serv­ing in Biden’s Cab­i­net, but even some of their allies rec­og­nize they face major polit­i­cal hur­dles get­ting there. Sens­ing dis­ap­point­ment, pro­gres­sive lead­ers have reluc­tant­ly begun to express sup­port for less-con­tro­ver­sial alter­na­tives.

War­ren, whose polit­i­cal career has been defined by efforts to dimin­ish the pow­er of big banks, is the pro­gres­sive movement’s top choice for Trea­sury sec­re­tary. Sanders, a self-described demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist, reit­er­at­ed his desire to serve as Biden’s Labor sec­re­tary on Thurs­day, describ­ing him­self as par­tic­u­lar­ly well-suit­ed “to focus on the many crises fac­ing work­ing fam­i­lies in this coun­try.”

Whether he is includ­ed in Biden’s cab­i­net or not, Sanders warned Biden not to freeze out pro­gres­sives as he shapes his gov­ern­ment.

“It seems to me pret­ty clear that pro­gres­sive views need to be expressed with­in a Biden admin­is­tra­tion,” Sanders told The Asso­ci­at­ed Press. “It would be, for exam­ple, enor­mous­ly insult­ing if Biden put togeth­er a ‘team of rivals’ — and there’s some dis­cus­sion that that’s what he intends to do — which might include Repub­li­cans and con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats — but which ignored the pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty. I think that would be very, very unfor­tu­nate.”

The scruti­ny on Biden’s staffing deci­sions reflects the tremen­dous pres­sure the pres­i­dent-elect faces as he cob­bles togeth­er a senior team to exe­cute his pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties draw­ing from his party’s dis­parate fac­tions. He will almost cer­tain­ly face crit­i­cism no mat­ter whom he picks for the most pow­er­ful posi­tions, but he can per­haps least afford to lose the sup­port of his vocal pro­gres­sive base.

In a nod to the left wing, Biden’s tran­si­tion team has hired Analil­ia Mejia, a Sanders advis­er who served as his pres­i­den­tial campaign’s polit­i­cal direc­tor, to work on pro­gres­sive out­reach. It’s unlike­ly, how­ev­er, that mid-lev­el hires dur­ing the tran­si­tion will be enough to sat­is­fy pro­gres­sives.

Biden told reporters Thurs­day that he had final­ized his choice for Trea­sury sec­re­tary and said the pick would be “some­one who will be accept­ed by all ele­ments of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, mod­er­ates and pro­gres­sives.” He side­stepped a spe­cif­ic ques­tion about Sanders join­ing his Cab­i­net as he walked off stage.

Like­ly fac­ing a divid­ed Con­gress that could push back against the vast major­i­ty of his agen­da, Biden is eye­ing a series of exec­u­tive actions to be imple­ment­ed by his Cab­i­net that would force sig­nif­i­cant changes in health care, bank­ing, envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, immi­gra­tion and for­eign pol­i­cy, among oth­er major issues.

Biden’s tran­si­tion team declined to com­ment pub­licly about Sanders or War­ren.

And while pro­gres­sives have not giv­en up hope that one or both might still be nom­i­nat­ed, they acknowl­edged the pos­si­bil­i­ty — even the like­li­hood — that the high-pro­file lib­er­al sen­a­tors would remain in the Sen­ate.

“It’s safe to say that Eliz­a­beth War­ren has def­i­nite­ly earned the trust and the ear of Joe Biden, and will sure­ly have an influ­en­tial role in agen­da set­ting going for­ward whether it’s being a very pow­er­ful sen­a­tor or a more for­mal role in his admin­is­tra­tion,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Pro­gres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, among Warren’s most vocal sup­port­ers in Wash­ing­ton. “No mat­ter what, she’ll be pow­er­ful when it comes to agen­da set­ting for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.”

Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the Sanders-aligned Jus­tice Democ­rats, said his group and oth­ers rec­og­nize that “not every sin­gle mem­ber of the admin­is­tra­tion is going to be pro­gres­sive — that’s not who Joe Biden is.” He said pro­gres­sives sim­ply want ”ade­quate rep­re­sen­ta­tion” in the Cab­i­net.

“We are advo­cat­ing for them to be includ­ed, but we also have back­up choic­es,” he said of War­ren and Sanders.

Indeed, lib­er­al groups have tried to ral­ly behind less­er-known pro­gres­sive lead­ers such as Michi­gan Rep. Andy Levin for Labor sec­re­tary and for­mer Fed­er­al Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to lead the Depart­ment of Trea­sury.

Like their party’s estab­lish­ment lead­ers, pro­gres­sives under­stand the polit­i­cal chal­lenge Democ­rats would face should either Sanders or War­ren leave the Sen­ate. In both cas­es, Repub­li­can gov­er­nors would have the abil­i­ty to nom­i­nate their replace­ments, at least in the short-term.

Sanders not­ed that Ver­mont Gov. Phil Scott has promised to fill a prospec­tive vacan­cy with an inde­pen­dent who cau­cus­es with Democ­rats, just as Sanders does.

“Gov. Scott is a mod­er­ate Repub­li­can. He is not a right-wing Repub­li­can,” Sanders said. “He under­stands that this is a pro­gres­sive state and the wise and appro­pri­ate thing to do would be, as an inter­im appoint­ment before the spe­cial elec­tion took place — would be to appoint some­body whose views were con­sis­tent with mine.”

In a best-case sce­nario for Democ­rats, the Sen­ate would be divid­ed 50–50 in Jan­u­ary when the new Con­gress is sworn in, with Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Kamala Har­ris in posi­tion to break the tie. But that’s only if Democ­rats win both of Georgia’s spe­cial elec­tions on Jan. 5.

Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell holds great sway over Biden’s Cab­i­net nom­i­nees regard­less of which par­ty ends up in con­trol.

The Senate’s top Repub­li­can has yet to tip his hand about how he’ll nav­i­gate the con­fir­ma­tion process, pre­fer­ring to wait for to accept the elec­tion results and Georgia’s Sen­ate elec­tions to play out. But Sen­ate Democ­rats expect McConnell to impose a full-scale block­ade on Cab­i­net picks he doesn’t like.

Biden will be the first Demo­c­rat pres­i­dent in mod­ern times try­ing to set up a first-term admin­is­tra­tion with­out his par­ty con­trol­ling the Sen­ate, a rare dynam­ic that will play out before a bit­ter­ly divid­ed nation and a hyper-par­ti­san Sen­ate.

The more con­tro­ver­sial poten­tial nom­i­nees, War­ren and Sanders among them, would like­ly strug­gle to win con­fir­ma­tion. Some are already run­ning into par­ti­san .

Pre­view­ing the intense bat­tles ahead, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz has been pro­duc­ing a series of cam­paign-style videos oppos­ing both War­ren and Sanders.

Yet there is also evi­dence of resis­tance from Biden’s own coali­tion, which includes mod­er­ate Democ­rats, inde­pen­dents and even some Repub­li­cans.

“Choos­ing Eliz­a­beth War­ren or Bernie Sanders, who rep­re­sent the far left — and in Bernie’s case an open­ly social­ist view of the world — is not the lead­er­ship that the Amer­i­can peo­ple just vot­ed for,” said Jen­nifer Horn, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lin­coln Project that spent mil­lions to sup­port Biden’s pres­i­den­tial bid. “I think Joe Biden under­stands that.”

AP writ­ers Lisa Mas­caro and Chris Rugaber in Wash­ing­ton con­tributed.

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