Sen. Elizabeth Warren won’t be president. She won’t be vice president.
She reportedly wants to be treasury secretary. But with the partisan control of the Senate dependent on two runoff elections in Georgia, the chances of a cabinet post also seem increasingly in doubt, raising the question of how Warren could most effectively advance progressive causes during President-elect Joe Biden’s first term.
“The odds of her being the next secretary of treasury seem as low as Trump’s odds of winning Massachusetts,” said Jeff Cohen, a co-founder of Roots Action, which was one of several progressive groups that called on Biden to pick Warren as his running mate this summer.
While Cohen says they would love to see the Massachusetts senator in any cabinet position, he thinks “Wall Street power brokers” would be able to rally enough opposition in a Republican-controlled Senate to block Warren, an outspoken critic of the big banks, from being confirmed to lead the Treasury Department.
But that doesn’t mean Warren won’t have influence. Allies agree that she will continue be a powerful voice for progressive populism during the Biden administration — whether it’s from the inside or the outside. The question is from which perch Warren could most effectively press for, in her words, big, structural change.
“Elizabeth Warren has definitely earned the ear and the trust of Joe Biden and will surely be in an influential role in the agenda setting going forward, whether it’s being a very powerful senator or being a more formal part of Biden’s administration,” Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and longtime Warren ally, told Boston.com.
To a certain extent, she has already begun the agenda-setting effort from her Senate seat.
After dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, Warren became a close policy adviser to Biden and got the former vice president to support plans to reform the bankruptcy system, expand Social Security benefits, and cancel student-loan debt. Warren, who Biden reportedly approached about being his running mate for a never-launched 2016 campaign, told GBH last month that they talk “a lot about economics” and “what is possible” as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a Washington Post opinion piece last week, Warren laid out a series of “bold” executive actions she said the Biden administration could take on “day one,” including canceling “billions of dollars in student loan debt,” lowering the price of key drugs through “using existing compulsory licensing authority that allows the federal government to bypass patents for pressing public health needs,” raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour, and “prioritizing strong anti-monopoly protections and enforcement.”
“We know that Washington insiders and their establishment allies are ready to declare that unity and consensus mean turning over the governing keys to giant corporations and their lobbyists — the exact opposite of what voters want,” Warren wrote.
“Democrats must resist this pressure,” she said. “Acquiescing to an unpopular and timid agenda that further entrenches the wealthy and the well-connected will lead us to more division, more anger, more inequality and an even bigger hole to climb out of.”
Warren has experience pressuring the administration from the outside — not just in her vocal opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies but also agitating President Barack Obama’s administration from the left at times when she didn’t feel they were acting with enough urgency. Perhaps most famously, she led a successful effort to block an Obama appointee for the Treasury Department’s third-ranking position who she thought was too close to the banking industry.
Some on the left are even eager to see Warren reclaim her mantle of being unafraid to call out fellow Democrats.
“Whether she stays in the Senate or moves into the executive branch, we hope she regains her voice for speaking truth to power, even when those in power are Democrats,” Cohen said.
According to Green, the fact that the Senate may remain under GOP control “increases the urgency around having people in the executive branch who will use executive power boldly and be faithful implementers of the ambitious ideas that Biden just campaigned on.”
To be sure, some progressive groups would like to see Warren implement those ideas herself; as the The New York Times recently reported, many liberals are continuing to both publicly and privately urge Biden to appoint Warren as treasury secretary. It’s a post that the Cambridge Democrat privately wants, as Politico first reported last month, and would make Warren one of the top officials in charge of overseeing the financial industry that she has studied — and often critiqued — for decades.
“She wants it,” two Democratic officials, who had spoken with Warren’s inner circle, told Politico a week before the Nov. 3 election.
Some Democrats have even argued she would be more effective as attorney general, rooting out corruption and prosecuting big business, whether it’s in the financial or pharmaceutical industry.
But the path to any Cabinet position is complicated.
Unless Democrats win both Senate runoff elections in Georgia, Republicans will almost certainly hold a slim majority in the chamber responsible for confirming presidential appointees, which means a unified GOP could block any Warren nomination.
The Hill reported last Friday — more than two months before any such confirmation hearings could take place and with many Republicans, including Trump himself, still refusing to acknowledge Biden as president-elect — that some Republicans are already warning that appointing a progressive like Warren to lead Treasury or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to lead the Labor Department would spark a fight.
While some Republican senators reportedly acknowledged Warren’s credentials as a former Harvard Law School professor and national bankruptcy expert, others signaled that the party would line up against her.
“If it’s someone who represents some of the more radical views that we see gaining a lot of traction in the Democratic Party, I think they would have a lot of problems getting through,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told The Hill.
Even if Warren were able to be confirmed, the fragile balance of the Senate could also play a factor. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, would appoint a temporary replacement to fill Warren’s seat until a special election is held. According to Politico, some Democrats say the combination of factors could be a fatal blow to the chances of Warren or Sanders.
“We cannot afford to put any seats in jeopardy,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly told the outlet.
Unlike Vermont’s Republican governor, Baker has made no commitments to replacing Warren with a like-minded replacement. Baker even recently spoke out against a proposed budget amendment to effectively force him to replace Warren with a fellow Democrat should she be tapped for an administration post, calling it a “bad look for everybody” after the Democrat-controlled Legislature repeatedly changed the state’s Senate vacancy rules in 2004 and 2009. While the budget amendment was ultimately unsuccessful, leaders in the Legislature, where Democrats have a veto-proof majority, aren’t ruling out a change.
“I think it’s a little early to get in front of that at the moment,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz told reporters last week.
Ultimately, allies say it may be for the better that Warren stays in the Senate.
Cohen suggested she would have more independence on the outside. And no matter which party controls the Senate, given the slim majority either way, Warren could potentially wield more power to block Biden nominees who she sees as insufficiently progressive, like she did during the Obama years.
“We think a Senator Warren is more likely to be find her full-throated progressive voice than a Secretary Warren or [an Attorney General] Warren,” Cohen said.
“But it would be great to see what she could accomplish on the inside,” he added.
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