President-elect Joe Biden will take office on Wednesday surrounded by a Cabinet made up largely, if not entirely, of acting secretaries after circumstances combined to slow Senate confirmation of his nominees for top posts.
The best bets for rapid Senate confirmation are three of the five key nominees who will testify before Senate committees on Tuesday: Janet Yellen for Treasury secretary, Antony Blinken for secretary of state and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence. It’s likely to take more time to determine the outcome for Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick to lead the Pentagon.
The Senate’s turnover from Republican to Democratic control, delays in the vetting of candidates after President Donald Trump refused to admit his defeat, limits on in-person hearings imposed by the coronavirus and the requirement for action on the House-passed impeachment of the departing president once Speaker Nancy Pelosi submits it to the Senate may all contribute to delays.
By contrast, Trump’s secretaries of defense and homeland security were confirmed on his first day in office, and former President Barack Obama had seven Cabinet choices cleared by the Senate on Inauguration Day.
Here’s a look at the proposed cabinet members who are scheduled to have their Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday:
Yellen, a former chair of the Federal Reserve, is expected to win confirmation easily in the Senate.
Although she occasionally sparred with Republican lawmakers during her tenure at the Fed, some GOP senators have already said they support her nomination.
In Yellen, Biden will have a battle-tested policymaker who can draw on decades of experience to help rebuild an economy in need of government cash and confidence as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on.
Yellen is expected to champion what she has called “extraordinary fiscal support” to help the economy — deficit spending that she says is affordable given extraordinarily low interest rates.
But Republicans at her confirmation hearing Tuesday are likely to press criticism of Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package that they say extends beyond pandemic relief, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
If confirmed, Yellen, 74, will be the first woman to serve as Treasury chief and the oldest to hold that job in recent history.
State Department: Blinken
Blinken, who served as Biden’s staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later worked on his 2008 presidential campaign, is expected to win confirmation. But first he may face testy debates over U.S. foreign policy and a world that has changed since he served as deputy secretary of state under Obama.
Biden has pledged to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump quit, a move that a number of lawmakers oppose. He will be pressed to say how the administration will tackle Iran’s role in arming proxies in the Middle East and the continued expansion of its ballistic missile program, threats that U.S. ally Israel has said must be resolved before easing trade sanctions.
Blinken also will be be questioned on his approach to China. Washington and Beijing have shifted to a much more confrontational relationship in recent years. Like Biden, Blinken is likely to promise a tough stance, while arguing it’s best to counter China’s rise through alliances instead of the Trump administration’s “America First” mantra.
Blinken, 58, also may face scrutiny over his work at WestExec Advisors LLC, a consulting firm he co-founded and managed. WestExec has advised corporations from Facebook Inc. to AT&T Inc.
Defense Department: Austin
Retired General Austin, 67, would make history as the first Black defense secretary. But first he’ll need votes of approval from the House as well as the Senate.
In addition to Senate confirmation, Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, would need both chambers of Congress to pass a waiver from a law that bars former military officers from serving as defense secretary within seven years of stepping down.
After his hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the four-star general will face the House Armed Services panel on Thursday to answer questions about the waiver. A group that represents a majority of House Republicans has opposed granting the exception, as have a number of senators of both parties. Some Democrats have said they’ll vote against the waiver — but if it passes, they’ll vote for his confirmation.
“Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle in our country since its founding,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said. But “I will consider his nomination independently on the merits.”
Austin may also face tough questions over his time as the commander in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East. As head of Central Command during the Obama administration, Austin faced criticism over the department’s failure to train more than a handful of Syrian fighters despite a $500 million program designed to help combat the Assad regime.
Homeland Security: Mayorkas
Mayorkas is a priority for Democrats pushing to speed confirmation of national security nominees after the storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists on Jan. 6.
A Cuban-American and a former Obama administration official, Mayorkas, 61, has served as both the department’s No. 2 and as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But Mayorkas, who’s now a partner with the WilmerHale law firm, will face tough questioning from Republicans about his qualifications to lead the department with its many missions. Those include preventing domestic terrorist attacks like the one on the Capitol.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has already called Mayorkas unqualified, and other Republicans are likely to press him on Biden’s pledge to reverse his predecessor’s tough immigration policies, including Trump’s diversion of defense funds to build portions of his promised border wall.
Critics also are likely to revive questions that surfaced in 2013 over Mayorkas’s intervention into a visa program at the request of several high-profile people, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton’s brother.
Mayorkas is likely to emphasize his success in creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects people brought to the U.S. illegally as children from being deported and lets them work legally.
National Intelligence: Haines
Haines, 51, a former senior CIA official who served in both the Obama and Bush administrations, is known for having led an eclectic lifestyle before joining government, from owning an independent bookstore in Baltimore to learning how to fly a plane.
While Haines would be the first woman to oversee the 18 agencies making up the intelligence community, her appointment has prompted concern from human rights activists and progressives over her role in the Obama administration’s drone program, which led to a significant civilian death toll. Also controversial was her approval of a decision not to discipline CIA personnel for spying on Senate Intelligence Committee investigators who were looking into the agency’s use of torture techniques against terrorism suspects.
Her later work consulting for Palantir Technologies Inc., a major government contractor, is also likely to be scrutinized.
She is sure to be questioned about how the intelligence community will restore its reputation after Trump and many of his Republican advocates in Congress made unsupported assertions that it was part of a “deep state” conducting a “witch hunt” against him.