McKee in limbo awaiting Raimondo confirmation

Updated at 5:57 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – Lt. Gov. Daniel J. McKee stayed away from Thursday’s R.I. Department of Health COVID-19 briefing and may not attend another one, according to his staff, until he’s sworn in as the state’s next governor.

When will that be? McKee is still hoping for Feb. 25 but U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on Thursday said on The Dan Yorke Show podcast that he expects Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, who is also staying away from the weekly health briefing, to be confirmed as the next United States secretary of commerce “within a month.”

Mike Trainor, a spokesman for McKee, on Friday responded to the possibility of a delay beyond next week by saying, “That is certainly not our understanding. Whitehouse is [in Washington] – but we’re not sure. We hope the swearing in will be a lot sooner” than that.

Trainor said if McKee is sworn in on Feb. 25, he will attend the Department of Health’s COVID-19 briefing that day. “If he is not sworn in, he’s trying to balance the pressure of transition briefings. If he doesn’t attend the briefing, a representative of his will attend – probably Tony Silva.”

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Silva, McKee’s chief of staff, is slated to be appointed to lead the incoming McKee administration’s vaccine efforts.

McKee earlier this week was critical of the state’s handling of the vaccine rollout but has limited authority to chart a different course as long as Raimondo, who has mostly stayed out of public view since her nomination by President Joe Biden last month, remains as governor.

Raimondo’s confirmation date has been delayed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, who put a Senate vote on Raimondo’s confirmation on hold. The Senate calendar says that her confirmation is still “pending.”

The budget reconciliation process unfolding in Washington on the next round of federal COVID-19 stimulus aid could also delay Raimondo’s confirmation, as could Republicans in the Senate placing holds on other nominees of President Biden.

But Chip Unruh, spokesman for Sen. Jack F. Reed, D-R.I., said the senator believes Raimondo “should be confirmed swiftly. She has overwhelming bipartisan support. And the vast majority of senators understand that to respond to China we need a well-qualified, confirmed commerce secretary.”

Warwick Mayor Frank J. Picozzi said the delayed transition to a new governor has McKee and Rhode Island “in limbo right now. It’s just not a good situation. This isn’t a good time for [the state] to be in limbo.”

Picozzi is one of a handful of mayors who have asked for Raimondo to resign. He said that “with the transition of any normal government, someone is going to take control eventually, but the person that is coming in doesn’t have any authority.” That, he added, creates “a lot of uncertainty.”

Trainor said that no matter when Raimondo is confirmed, McKee will continue to “pursue transition briefings in preparation for office.” He noted that McKee will be taking things “week-to-week” in deciding to attend meetings.

Trainor noted that “overall the cooperation with the Raimondo administration has been good.” But, he said, “[McKee] is anxious to take office.

“There can only be one governor at a time,” said Trainor. “McKee believes he can lead by suggestion, and by example.” Trainor said McKee will draw on experience at the municipal level to advise on the vaccine rollout.

“The lieutenant governor made it clear he believes the vaccine rollout needs to be reevaluated,” said Trainor, “especially in terms of getting more vaccine off the shelves and into the arms of Rhode Islanders, and actively engage the cities and towns for additional distribution capacity.”

The New York Times has collected data that shows Rhode Island leads the nation in COVID-19 related deaths as a percentage of the population over the past seven days.

Picozzi said Rhode Island cities and towns “need a plan,” as they are “on the ground with regard to getting the vaccine out. We can’t keep doing it the way we’re doing it, we’re just not getting enough vaccines out statewide.”

On Friday night, during a meeting of his COVID-19 Advisory Group, McKee said he is forming three subcommittees, comprised of educators, doctors and businessmen, to help address the COVID relief effort. One subcommittee will handle vaccine distribution, another will handle the opening of schools, universities and colleges safely, and the third will handle opening businesses safely. The subcommittees will meet jointly every two weeks on Mondays to report their ideas, and progress.

(ADDS 9th paragraph with Reed comment and last paragraph with details on new subcommittees.)  

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Shuman@PBN.com.

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