The diverse range of candidates will undergo a series of confirmation hearings that kick off just 24 hours before the White House changes hands.
WASHINGTON (CN) — The soon-to-be 46th president of the United States is getting his administration off the ground Tuesday as a slew of nominees to critical positions come before Congress.
Set in a city largely locked down and crawling with heavy security forces in anticipation of Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, the lengthy day of confirmation hearings featured Biden’s picks for top spy chief, treasury secretary, and heads of the nation’s homeland security agency and Defense Department.
Set to succeed the outgoing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Janet Yellen appeared this morning before the Senate Finance Committee. The economist and former chair of the Federal Reserve offered full-throated support for a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that the president-elect has proposed.
“Neither the president-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden. But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big,” Yellen said in opening remarks.
The plan, if approved, would deliver $1,400 stimulus checks to most Americans and would shore up flagging small businesses with $15 billion in grants and $35 billion to small business lending, while redoubling investments to get the nation’s Covid-19 vaccine program, as well as testing and tracing initiatives, up and running more effectively. As of Tuesday, more than 399,000 Americans have died from the novel respiratory virus, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.
Six months ago, Yellen appeared before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis with a stark prediction: that it could be three full years before the economy can recover in earnest if the U.S. failed to get its infection rates under control.
Further economic recovery will also involve an about-face on the U.S. approach to trade under President Donald Trump. The former Federal Reserve chair told senators she supports moving away from over-reliance on “unilateral protectionism” with its allies as the nation emerges from the pandemic.
This could be a boon for the Biden administration’s plans to generate more American revenue by raising corporate tax rates internationally. The corporate tax rate sits at 21%; Biden has called for a hike up to 28%.
Yellen also called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, brushing away criticism from Republican lawmakers like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina that doing so would be a permanent drag on jobs.
Much of what is known on raising the minimum wage shows the contrary, that effects would be minimal, generally speaking, she argued.
A 2019 report by the Congressional Budget Office found if the hourly wage was bumped to $15, it would cause two things to happen: On average 1.3 million would be lifted out of poverty while another 1.3 million jobs might be lost.
Those were the median rates, however, and the CBO also noted the wage hike would help 17 million workers who earn just under $15 an hour and would uplift another 10 million earning more.
Over at the Senate Intelligence Committee, lawmakers weighed the nomination of Avril Haines, former deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser, to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. If confirmed, she will become the first woman to lead the national intelligence community.
Haines would have sweeping oversight of 18 intelligence bodies. She would also replace the current director of the intelligence office, John Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe previously served as a Republican congressman for Texas and came to the job amid intense backlash regarding his qualifications and close ties to Trump.
The nomination of Haines was announced alongside the promotion of Jake Sullivan, who will serve the Biden administration as a national security adviser — one of the youngest to hold the position at age 44.
Haines also spent time working for Biden’s secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, who co-founded WestExec — a consulting firm that promises to bring clients from “the situation room to the board room.”
Although previously identified as one of the company’s principals, Haines said the title was more similar to that of a contractor and that her role with the consultants was less involved — she only worked with the company less than a day a month on average, she said.
Texas Republican John Cornyn asked Haines if she’d commit to releasing the last three years of her tax returns to resolve his questions over her title at WestExec. A principal of a business would have less of their income withheld than that of a consultant, he noted. She agreed.
Haines touted three top priorities if confirmed. She said strengthening trust in the intellectual community through transparency would be a top priority, along with aligning work, effort and resources to major threats both traditional and not, plus transnational menaces like organized crime and disinformation.
Partnerships with the committee, private sector leadership and academia also would be crucial to making the team successful, she said.
“I agree that prioritization is necessary, although I think that we can do more than one thing at a time in a sense I think we do have to make some choices about how we allocate our resources and that’s going to be part of the hard job that I see being performed by the director of national intelligence,” she said.
In the spirit of transparency, she vowed if confirmed to provide Congress with an unclassified report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The ODNI under Trump has so far only delivered to lawmakers a classified report on his murder in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In 2019, a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act required an unclassified report to be produced identifying anyone who might have been involved in Khashoggi’s killing, including, potentially Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The Trump administration refused to comply, saying revealing specific persons involved could pose a threat to national security.
Also up for consideration is Alejandro Mayorkas for head of the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas was born in Cuba to a Sephardic Jewish father and a mother who fled Europe in the late 1930s seeking escape from Nazi death camps. The family immigrated to the United States when Fidel Castro came to power.
U.S. attorney under former President Bill Clinton and head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under former President Barack Obama, Mayorkas was influential in establishing Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Making waves during his previous tenure, however, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office briefly probed allegations that Mayorkas aided well-heeled companies to secure visas for foreign workers. In 2015, then-Inspector General John Roth found Mayorkas broke no laws but created poor optics for the visa program known as EB-5. Mayorkas maintained he was only trying to navigate an already fraught immigration system. It is expected he will face tough questions Tuesday from some lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on this nearly decade-old incident.
Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, pressed Mayorkas with questions ranging from his possible future recusal on matters involving special visas to favoritism.
Mayorkas stood by his performance and rebuffed Republican insinuations that he had intervened inappropriately in visa-application matters. When Tony Rodham, the brother of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, needed approval for investments into his company in 2015, Mayorkas had flagged an email from Rodham inquiring about delays and forwarded it as “high importance,” according to the inspector general report.
“I did my job. … I learned of a problem and I fixed it,” Mayorkas said of his time reviewing visa applications.
To deal with domestic terror threats and assist lawmakers in their probes of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Mayorkas also vowed to tap the Homeland Security department’s “unique capabilities.” As for the Biden administration’s immigration-reform plans, he promised to bring them into action quickly.
“I will do everything I can to ensure the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of democracy, the terror that everyone, you, your staff and colleagues felt, will not happen again,” Mayorkas said.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri shot down hopes of a swift confirmation for Mayorkas. Hawley is facing sharp criticism following his objections to the certification of Biden’s win amid the fallout of the attack at the Capitol.
On Tuesday, Hawley said Mayorkas failed to square his duty to protect the southern border of the U.S. with “President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures.”
Biden’s immigration plan, which he is expected to unveil right after the inauguration, is premised on pathways to citizenship becoming achievable in eight years instead of the current average of 13. The Washington Post, first to report on the proposal this weekend, noted Biden’s immigration proposal places 5 million qualifying immigrants in temporary status for five years while providing them a green card after completing a background check and paying taxes.
Citizenship would then be possible within three years. To avoid a surge at the border — a concern Hawley aired on Tuesday — Biden’s plan would only apply to those immigrants already in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021.
On the defense front, General Lloyd Austin is on the cusp of becoming the 46th president’s secretary of defense and the first-ever Black man to lead the Pentagon. Austin has served in the U.S. Army for 40 years and his nomination has enjoyed significant bipartisan support.
His nomination is made somewhat tricky, however, due to the timing of his retirement. While federal law says secretaries of defense cannot serve in the position unless they are seven years or more removed from active service, Austin just retired four years ago.
This ensures the department is helmed by someone who is technically a civilian. A waiver will be required for Austin, and he is expected to receive it though it must be approved by both the House and Senate. In the meantime, David Norquist, the Defense Department’s deputy secretary since 2019 will serve as acting secretary.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said he would not vote to approve the waiver for Austin, citing the lack of an appropriate “cooling-off” period and a self-professed renewed concern over abuse of procedural rules for the sake of political expediency.
Cotton, notably, voted in favor of a waiver for retired U.S. Air Force General James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary in 2017. Mattis served for 44 years before retiring in 2013 and getting the nod from Trump to lead the department four years later. Democrats largely opposed to Mattis’ nomination then cited reasons similar to Cotton’s posture Tuesday: not enough time had passed.
This time, Democrats have defended tapping retired General Austin because of the complex coterie of crises unfolding on nearly every front in America. The insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 has triggered a number of national security concerns that will likely extend well after Biden’s inauguration. Apart from new domestic terrorist threats, some of which might emanate from inside the very halls of Congress, and the continued spread of Covid-19, cybersecurity threats from foreign adversaries are also on the rise.
In a letter obtained exclusively by Fox News this weekend, 15 former defense secretaries, deputies and other officials urged Congress to approve Austin’s waiver.
“We do not make this recommendation lightly,” the former secretaries wrote to chairs of the Senate and House Armed Services committees. “The principle of civilian control is foundational to the modern military. Nonetheless, Congress has chosen to waive the statutory requirement of the 1947 National Security Act when it has a strong reason. When the president or president-elect has nominated an exceptional individual during times of national peril, Congress has the legal authority to grant a waiver.”
Austin told lawmakers that, if confirmed, he would also hunker down on an intensive investigation to counter the threat of white supremacy in the U.S.
Recalling a personal experience years ago when he uncovered white supremacists in the ranks of the 82nd Airborne, Austin remarked that it was not until after a probe that he and other service members realized signs had been there “all along.”
“We just didn’t know what to look for or pay attention to but we learned from that,” Austin said. “It’s important to our military to keep a handle on it, to understand our troops, to know our troops. We can never take our hand off the wheel on this. This has no place in the military for the United States of America.”
The general also vowed to review the Trump administration’s vaccine-distribution efforts at length and make sure the department was doing everything it can to facilitate getting more shots into more arms.
For all things diplomacy, Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state pick, went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late Tuesday. Like Mayorkas, Blinken served the Obama administration. Blinken was deputy state secretary until the end of the administration and is co-founder of WestExec, a consulting firm that promises to bring clients from “the situation room to the board room.”
Outside working in the private sector, Blinken has spent years as a dedicated civil servant in the national intelligence sector, working for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before serving in his role for Obama.
At his nomination ceremony in November, Blinken thanked college classmates and noted an insatiable appetite for bad puns. He lauded his father, Donald — a War War II Air Force veteran and U.S. ambassador — for his role in helping inspire a love for strengthening international relationships.
His stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was one of 900 schoolchildren to survive four years in a Nazi concentration camp in Bialystok, Poland, he noted during his nomination ceremony in November — which is how Blinken learned about America’s symbolism to the rest of the world. Fleeing from a death march, Pisar made it to an Allied tank.
“He ran to the tank, the hatch opened. An African American G.I. looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘God bless America,’” Blinken said. “That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.”
On Tuesday, Blinken’s explained that the foreign relations challenges Biden now inherits in a post-Trump presidency are many, but his focus was resolute.
Alongside Tuesday’s legislative work to fill the president-elect’s advisory roles at key federal agencies, Biden’s team announced they’d select Dr. Rachel Levine to fill the position of assistant health secretary. Levine, if confirmed, will be the first openly transgender woman to serve in her role.