The Senate on Tuesday failed to advance the nomination of Judy Shelton, one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial appointees, to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors by a 47–50 vote. That was not the predicted outcome when senators went to bed on Monday night, and it took an unlikely combination of COVID scares and a rushed return from Delaware to bring about the result. And while Republicans have the option to push through Shelton’s nomination again, their window might be closing.
Trump’s inclination toward Fed vacancies has been to fill them with political hacks. That’s why he had wanted to nominate both Herman Cain and Steve Moore, but neither could pass muster with Senate Republicans. Somehow, though, Judy Shelton—a former Trump campaign adviser and crank who wants to return to the gold standard and get rid of deposit insurance, and who flip-flops her views on interest rate policy depending on whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in the White House—was formally nominated, along with the much less controversial Christopher Waller (whose nomination is still waiting for floor action). Though Shelton became a mysterious convert away from her tight-money beliefs this year, Democrats fear that she would return to those roots during a Biden administration.
Earlier this week, retiring GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander announced that he would oppose the Shelton nomination as he was “not convinced that she supports the independence of the Federal Reserve Board as much as I believe the Board of Governors should.” That brought the total number senators opposing Shelton to 50: All 47 Democrats plus Alexander, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, and Maine Sen. Susan Collins. In the case of a 50-50 tie, Vice President Mike Pence could have broken it in favor of Shelton.
But over the weekend, Florida Sen. Rick Scott went into quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID. Then just Tuesday morning, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, too, announced he would have to quarantine, which meant he would miss his first Senate votes since the early 1990s. And though Alexander opposed the nomination, he was out of town for the week for personal reasons.
That meant that Democrats, by Tuesday midday, had the numbers to defeat the nomination, 48–49—if they could get all of their side to show up. They needed Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, working on the presidential transition in Wilmington, Delaware, to high-tail it down I-95 to make the vote. When asked midday Tuesday by Bloomberg whether she would make it, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, said that she was “approached” to see “if it’s possible,” but that he didn’t know “if she’s going to be able to make it.”
Just shy of two o’clock, Harris was spotted in the Capitol for the first time since her ticket was declared the winner of the presidential election. Some Republican senators, who are too scared to publicly acknowledge that Harris and Joe Biden won the election, were seen congratulating her on the Senate floor.
The final tally was only 47–50, instead of 48–49, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell switched his “yes” vote to “no” as a procedural maneuver allowing him to reconsider the nomination later. And as things stand, if the Senate was at full attendance, he would have the votes to confirm Shelton.
But he’s now facing a time crunch. The Senate is scheduled to be out of town all of next week for Thanksgiving. And shortly after Thanksgiving week, Democrat Mark Kelly, who defeated Arizona Sen. Martha McSally in this year’s special election, is slated to be sworn in. Supposing he opposes Shelton—and why wouldn’t he?—Shelton’s opponents would have 51 votes in the Senate.
Arizona’s state deadline for certifying election results is Nov. 30, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Shelton’s nomination could rest on how cleverly McConnell hides the Bible on which new Senators are sworn in.