It is a bonanza of confirmation hearings for President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, including hearings vetting his pick to lead the Energy Department.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Across the U.S. Senate, a trio of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks made their case Wednesday for confirmation to roles managing the nation’s energy infrastructure, its veterans’ affairs, and its diplomatic mission at the United Nations.
Biden has been in office one week today, and the newly Democrat-majority Senate has moved at a rapid clip to flesh out the nascent administration’s leadership roles.
On Wednesday morning, the day-long slog of confirmation began with consideration of Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm and the potential new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Of the two hearings, Thomas-Greenfield’s confirmation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the rockiest with outgoing Chairman James Risch, an Iowa Republican, grilling Thomas-Greenfield about a speech she delivered in October 2019 at the Savanah State University Confucius Institute in Georgia.
The institute was shuttered last year as concerns mounted nationwide over the influence the Chinese government might have on U.S. academic institutions.
In her speech, Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman and 35-year veteran of the foreign service, remarked on the relationship between China, the United States and Africa, appearing to suggest there was not a cold war between the U.S. and China and that China’s involvement in Africa’s economy was welcomed, bringing very few drawbacks for the continent.
Republican lawmakers like Risch and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida complained that the speech was too soft on China, and Rubio in particular appeared dismayed the nominee was unaware of the Chinese government’s connection to the Confucius Institute in Savannah, Georgia, where she had given a speech in 2019.
Offering robust apologies, Thomas-Greenfield still defended the choice to a point, saying she only accepted the speaking engagement because of her close relationship to the historical Black college that hosted the event. Once she learned of the institute’s connections to China, she said Wednesday, she became “alarmed” and effectively sickened at the idea that Black students were being preyed upon by the Chinese government.
Despite the dust-up over the speech, Thomas-Greenfield was firm Wednesday, saying unequivocally that China is a “strategic adversary” to the U.S.
“Their actions threaten our security and our way of life. They’re a threat across the globe,” she said, also referring to the Chinese government repeatedly as “authoritarian” later in the hearing.
As America’s ambassador to the United Nations, if confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield’s agenda will be jam-packed. She will play in a key role alongside Biden’s pick for secretary of state Antony Blinken in the U.S. decision to reenter the Paris Climate Accord and she will also facilitate the transition of the U.S. back into the good graces of the World Health Organization.
A vote on her nomination is expected to be successful and could come over the next two weeks.
Meanwhile over at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, squared off with lawmakers.
Granholm, once the governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, recently stepped down from her adjunct professor role at the University of California, Berkley, to accept the secretary nomination.
She is also a board member of the California-based electric vehicle manufacturer Proterra, holding between $1 million and $5 million in Proterra stocks, according to a financial disclosure statement provided to the committee. Granholm also holds a variety of investments in Duke Energy, Ford Motor and First Solar, but if confirmed she plans to divest all of her stakes within 90 days.
Granholm will also cease appearing as an analyst for CNN if confirmed, and she has vowed to divest from any holdings she has in the energy industry if ushered into the department’s top spot.
Republicans pressed her Wednesday on the renewable-energy ambitions underpinning the Biden administration’s plans to deal with a changing climate.
A key component of the Biden White House climate-action agenda is to emphasize the creation of clean-energy jobs and drastically ramp up production of electric and zero-emission vehicles.
Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a Republican, told Granholm it was “cold comfort” for fossil fuel industry workers to hear the Biden administration’s proposals about prospects of an economy girded by renewable-energy jobs.
Those jobs may not even be available, Cassidy lamented.
Granholm acknowledged often on Wednesday the inherent difficulty those industry workers face but offered assurances of a more inclusive, cleaner job market to come with a bit of front-end investment.
“It’s a chicken and egg question we faced in Michigan: Do you train people for jobs that are not there yet?” she said. “It’s much better to get a job provider and train somebody for a specific job. This is why the Biden administration is looking at the economic assets that each state has that can create economic clusters and make them successful.”
This would include local partnerships for workers with unions and universities, she added.
“Every state has something to offer,” Granholm said. “Why aren’t we building wind turbines near the wind farms in America? We should not be importing these huge materials.”
Later Wednesday afternoon, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, was also considered by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
McDonough is no stranger to Capitol Hill. He previously served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2017. He also filled a variety of national security positions, including deputy national security adviser to Obama.
Unlike most previous secretaries leading the department, however, McDonough does not have any military experience. He would be only the second person to lead the department without having served. David Shulkin, former President Donald Trump’s nominee, was the first.
Though his lack of direct military experience has been a point of contention for some – Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Biden’s pick was “wildly out of touch” – organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project have lauded McDonough’s nomination. The group said in December when he was first nominated that his time as a White House chief of staff meant McDonough was used to working across the whole of government, including the Defense Department.
The department McDonough would oversee if confirmed is rife with issues. From long wait times for veteran health care and inaccessible benefits to high rates of turnover at the very top of the organization, McDonough would come to the job with seemingly endless priorities and just as many challenges.
Ahead of his hearing, a commission comprised of veterans of color known as the Black Veterans’ Empowerment Council issued a letter to the Biden administration calling for greater focus on Black veterans who have historically bore the brunt of the federal government’s neglect.
In addition to fulfilling Biden’s recent executive order directing all federal agencies to root out systemic racism, McDonough faces another massive hurdle: overseeing veteran care during a pandemic.
Vaccinations for veterans has been slow, with just 146,000 inoculated so far. Then there’s the homelessness issue, which is still pervasive among veterans.
“This will be a priority for the administration,” McDonough said of the housing crisis for veterans. “I will make it an intentional priority to work with other agencies in the federal government to increase access to available options and make sure that the VA is providing access to all services… [including] mental health, substance use disorder treatment, education, employment and training support.”
McDonough’s nomination will be voted on by the committee next week before heading to the full Senate for a final vote.
Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, was vaulted out of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday afternoon, 21-3. He heads to the full Senate next.