U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's first cabinet picks are coming Tuesday and planning is underway for a pandemic-modified inauguration in January as his team moves forward despite roadblocks from the Trump administration.
Ron Klain, Biden's incoming chief of staff, offered no details Sunday about which department heads Biden would first announce, but multiple people familiar with the Biden team's planning told The Associated Press that Antony Blinken is the leading contender to become Biden's nominee for secretary of state.
Blinken, 58, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration and has close ties with Biden. If nominated and confirmed, he would be a leading force in the incoming administration's bid to reframe the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world after four years in which U.S. President Donald Trump questioned longtime alliances.
In nominating Blinken, Biden would sidestep potentially thorny issues that could have affected Senate confirmation for two other candidates on his short list to be America's top diplomat: Susan Rice and Sen. Chris Coons.
Rice would have faced significant Republican opposition and likely rejection in the Senate. She has long been a target of Republicans, including for statements she made after the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Coons's departure from the Senate would have come as other Democratic senators are being considered for administrative posts and the party is hoping to win back the Senate. Control hangs on the result of two runoff elections in Georgia in January.
For his part, Blinken recently participated in a national security briefing with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and has weighed in publicly on notable foreign policy issues in Egypt and Ethiopia.
Biden's secretary of state would inherit a deeply demoralized and depleted career workforce at the State Department. Trump's two secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, offered weak resistance to the administration's attempts to gut the agency, which were thwarted only by congressional intervention.
Although the department escaped massive proposed cuts of more than 30 per cent in its budget for three consecutive years, it has seen a significant number of departures from its senior and rising mid-level ranks, from which many diplomats have opted to retire or leave the foreign service given limited prospects for advancements under an administration that they believe does not value their expertise.
Biden pledges diverse government
Biden has pledged to build the most diverse government in modern history, and he and his team often speak about their desire for his administration to reflect America.
He is being watched to see whether he will make history by nominating the first woman to lead the Pentagon, the Treasury Department or the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the first Black American at the top of the Defense Department, the Interior Department or the Treasury Department.
Biden said last week he had settled on his pick for treasury secretary.
Klain said the Trump administration's refusal to clear the way for Biden's team to have access to key information about agencies and federal dollars for the transition is taking its toll on planning, including the cabinet selection process
Trump's General Services Administration (GSA) has yet to acknowledge that Biden won the election — a determination that would remove those roadblocks.
"We're not in a position to get background checks on Cabinet nominees. And so there are definite impacts. Those impacts escalate every day," Klain told ABC's This Week.
Some GOP politicians break with Trump
Even some Republicans have broken with Trump in recent days and called on him to accept the results of the election.
"I, frankly, do think it's time to — well, it was past time to start a transition, to at least co-operate with the transition," Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said on NBC's Meet the Press.
He said the GSA's designation should happen Monday "because it didn't happen last Monday morning," to give the incoming administration "all the time they need."
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said there was a "very good chance" Biden would be president and that Biden and his team should have access to relevant information for the transition.
After a federal judge's ruling against the Trump campaign in an election challenge in Pennsylvania on Saturday, the state's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said the president had "exhausted all plausible legal options" and Toomey congratulated Biden on his win.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement Sunday that courts had so far found Trump's claims to be without merit and called a "pressure campaign" on state legislators to influence the electoral outcome unprecedented and inconsistent with the democratic process.
"It is time to begin the full and formal transition process," she said.
Also Sunday, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a longtime Trump supporter, said on ABC that it was time for the president to stop contesting the outcome.
Christie said Trump's legal team was a "national embarrassment."
Inauguration altered by pandemic
Looking ahead to the Jan. 20 inauguration, Klain said it is "going to definitely have to be changed" due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that the Biden team is consulting with Democratic leadership in the House and Senate over their plans.
"They're going to try to have an inauguration that honours the importance and the symbolic meaning of the moment, but also does not result in the spread of the disease. That's our goal," Klain said.
Inaugurations typically include a traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, remarks by the president and vice-president from the Capitol, a lunch with lawmakers in the Capitol rotunda and numerous balls across Washington.
All are events attended by hundreds and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people who travel to the nation's capital. It's unclear how public health concerns will affect those traditions.
During the campaign, Biden drew a contrast with Trump on the coronavirus by paring down his own events in response to the pandemic.
Biden held smaller gatherings where people were asked to wear masks and adhere to social distancing recommendations from public health experts. Since he won the presidency, Biden has emphasized the importance of mask-wearing.
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