How Kamala and the coronavirus tanked Trump's Fed pick

By Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine
·6 min read

Vice President Mike Pence has salvaged some of President Donald Trump’s most contentious nominees. But on Tuesday, it was Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking the deadlock to tank a top Trump pick.

Just after 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, Harris and her police escort arrived at the Capitol after hours of uncertainty over whether she’d appear. The California senator then strode to the Senate floor to provide the decisive vote against Federal Reserve nominee Judy Shelton. Pence wasn’t even in the building.

“The irony is her voting kept Pence from voting,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), an aggressive critic of Shelton’s and the top Democrat on the Banking Committee. Had Harris missed the vote, Pence could have broken a 48-48 tie.

While Republicans have the option to bring Shelton back up later this week, the failed floor vote was a rare setback for a Trump nominee under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stewardship. Republicans were noncommittal on whether there would be another attempt after Tuesday’s failed effort to break a filibuster.

The defeat stemmed not just from Harris’ appearance, but opposition from Trump’s own party and a pandemic that had long threatened Senate Republicans’ agenda and which finally derailed a top Trump priority.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee all opposed Shelton, and that meant that any sort of attendance problem in the 53-member Republican Conference could spell big problems.

Yet, when the sun rose on Tuesday, it looked like Shelton was safe. Alexander had announced his opposition on Monday, but he was out of town and would not be voting. That gave McConnell (R-Ky.) some wiggle room.

Though Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was isolating after possible exposure to the coronavirus, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) had returned to the Capitol after his quarantine. It appeared Republicans could put up 49 votes in favor of Shelton, which would have allowed Pence to break a potential tie even if Harris raced down from Delaware to join her caucus and Collins and Romney in opposition.

“We were situated fine,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “We were in good shape.”

But then came the news from 87-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the longest-serving Republican senator. Grassley had been exposed to the coronavirus and he would be isolating for the time being. Later that afternoon, he announced he had tested positive.

Not only was Grassley’s streak of 8,927 floor votes without an absence about to be broken, but it also gave the GOP a math problem.

“Sen. Grassley has not missed a vote since the ‘90s, for him to not be able to make it in today? It’s hard,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Grassley’s absence meant that Harris, who was working on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition in Wilmington, Del., this week, could be crucial. Wilmington’s about two hours away from D.C., allowing Harris to get back to the Capitol in time for the afternoon vote.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said his office had been talking to Harris "for the last several days to see if she'd be available" for the Shelton vote. Democratic leaders found out Monday night that Harris would make it, Durbin said.

“Obviously Vice President-elect Harris is very busy with the transition,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “She was in hours and hours of meetings in Delaware yesterday. [I am] thrilled she was able to come in and deliver a decisive vote.”

Still, by Tuesday afternoon, Republicans were still scrapping to push through Shelton, who was considered politically toxic enough that she did not come up before the November election. Her nomination was nearly bottled up in the Senate Banking Committee earlier this year due to her embrace of the gold standard. As one GOP senator put it, “there was not a lot of enthusiasm.”

Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) eventually embraced her nomination and voted her out of the panel, readying her for floor action. GOP leaders held off on confirming Shelton before the election given the number of vulnerable senators they were trying to defend.

After the election, McConnell began taking steps to hold a floor vote on Shelton’s appointment. Soon, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) vowed to support Shelton, giving her sufficient votes to be sent to the Federal Reserve through 2024.

Democrats were livid that Trump lost the election, but Shelton was going to get a four-year term on the Fed.

“Judy Shelton is a terrible nominee. And the notion that there are any Republicans here to vote for her is an outrage,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday. “This is not a woman who has conservative economic views. She just has plain old weird economic views.”

But there is only a short window after the election for her to be confirmed, chiefly because the Republican majority is about to shrink by a seat when Mark Kelly is sworn in as a Democratic senator around Nov. 30 after winning Arizona’s special election. Kelly’s presence in the Senate will mean that the Republican majority cannot confirm Shelton, given the trio of GOP defectors in Alexander, Collins and Romney.

That made Tuesday all the more critical, and GOP leaders didn’t give up searching for a solution after Grassley’s announcement. In a last-ditch bid, they pressed Romney to “pair” his vote with one of the absent senators and vote “present,” which would allow Shelton to be confirmed.

But Romney wasn’t having it. And while he said pairing — a Senate courtesy to help absent colleagues — “was discussed,” Shelton’s nomination remained too problematic for him.

“She has had a wide variation of views over the years,” Romney said after the vote. “And I believe a more consistent and steady approach is appropriate for the Federal Reserve. I also believe that she has wavered on the absolute independence of the Federal Reserve, which I also think is critical. And therefore I voted no.”

Shelton's failure underscores Trump's broader issues filling out the Fed over his single term as president. Republicans rejected efforts to install Herman Cain and Stephen Moore on the board previously. Another nominee, Christopher Waller, could be approved later this year. There are still two vacancies on the board.

The coronavirus has also threatened other top Trump nominees. Several senators announced positive tests ahead of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett this fall. But party leaders canceled some Senate business and ultimately held the vote to confirm her shortly before the election.

Whether Shelton’s nomination is truly finished will likely be determined in the next few days. McConnell can bring her up for a vote anytime he wants, but the chamber is scheduled to go on recess for Thanksgiving at the end of the week. And then Kelly will be sworn in and the GOP won’t have the numbers to confirm her.

Thune said “in all likelihood” the vote would have to be this week to succeed. With Grassley sidelined for the week, Republicans would now need Scott to be cleared to return or for Harris to miss the next attempt.

Democrats acknowledge that Tuesday’s victory may be fleeting.

“It’s good, but it’s not done because McConnell wants to reconsider,” Brown said. “Republicans didn’t want to vote for her... but they always do what Trump and McConnell tell them. That’s the story around here.”

Victoria Guida contributed to this report.