Why are Republicans embracing Judy Shelton now?

Early Returns

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On Tuesday, the Senate defeated President Donald Trump's latest unqualified pick for the Federal Reserve Board — for now, at least.

The chamber is split 50-50 at this point over the nominee, Judy Shelton, but two Republicans who support her, Florida's Rick Scott and Iowa's Chuck Grassley, were absent; so was one Republican who opposes her, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander. With Vice President-elect (and current Senator) Kamala Harris flying in to join the unanimously opposed Democrats, Republicans didn't have the numbers on a procedural vote to get to a tie and allow outgoing Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to try again, but it's not clear if he'll prevail. The problem is that with three Republicans opposed, McConnell has a deadline — because new Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, who won a special election to fill the remainder of the late John McCain's term, is scheduled to be sworn in when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving. That will reduce the Republican majority to 52-48 for the rest of the session, and provide the 51st vote against Shelton.

Meanwhile, Grassley announced on Tuesday that he has tested positive for the virus, so he's unlikely to return from Iowa in the next week. McConnell will thus need for Scott to return, Alexander to stay out and everyone else to stick around in the run-up to Thanksgiving in order to get a 49-49 tie that Pence can break.

The fight is important because the Fed is important, although political scientist Sarah Binder is surely correct in thinking that Shelton, who holds highly unorthodox views on monetary policy, would be unlikely to have much influence at the Fed. But aside from its substantive importance, this conflict confirms again what we already knew about Trump and his party.

The president first announced that he'd propose Shelton in July of last year, and her nomination was going nowhere until the election. Throughout Trump's term, Senate Republicans have repeatedly resisted nominees who deviate too far from party orthodoxy. When it comes to the Fed, that has included conservatives such as Stephen Moore and Herman Cain. They didn't have standard Republican views (or conventional qualifications for the job), and Republican senators had no difficulty pushing back against Trump's preferences. It's a good reminder that when it comes to policy, Trump's clout within the party has been meager at best — partly because he never really learned how to use his office to build influence.

After he lost the election to Joe Biden, however, the calculus changed. Instead of comparing Shelton to an alternative Republican nominee, the Senate majority now faced a very difference choice — as Binder puts it, "her confirmation would serve GOP interests by limiting Biden's ability to make inroads in (re)shaping the Board." So better a Republican they don't like than taking their chances on a Democratic nominee.

That may offer a good preview of what's in store if Republicans win one or both of the Senate runoffs and retain their majority. Just as they're willing to sit back and allow Trump to prevent the presidential transition to begin, presumably because they're willing to accept some risks to the nation in order to undermine Biden, it's possible that a Republican majority in 2021 would simply refuse to consider many of Biden's nominations. McConnell will probably have to confirm most of the new president's cabinet, but he may attempt to simply blockade many other key posts. Even with a 52-48 majority, he'd still need to keep almost his entire conference on board to succeed. But the strength of a blockade strategy is that it prevents two or three Republicans from just joining Democrats in a floor vote; they'd have to find ways to get the nominations to the floor in the first place.

Of course, an extensive blockade would also harm the nation by leaving the executive branch without confirmed officials in key positions, and it would continue McConnell's assault on democratic norms and values. There's nothing at all wrong with a Senate majority defeating some presidential nominees, and bargaining hard to find acceptable compromises; executive-branch departments and agencies, after all, respond to both Congress and the president. Perhaps that's all McConnell will do. But his track record suggests that he'd prefer slash-and-burn to negotiate-and-compromise, with most Republicans happy to go along. His (and their) sudden embrace of a nominee for the Fed Board whom they previously regarded as a kook — just in order to prevent Biden from having a vacancy — suggests that's the direction we're headed if McConnell is still the majority leader in the next Congress.

1. Natalie Jackson on religion and the Latino vote.

2. Claire Wilmot at the Monkey Cage on what's happening in Ethiopia.

3. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michael R. Strain on the continuing need for economic relief and stimulus.

4. Margaret Sullivan on Barack Obama and the media.

5. Perry Bacon Jr. on the damage Trump is doing to U.S. democracy

6. And Harry Enten on why Trump's election-fraud accusations don't make any sense

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