Making History, Senate Confirms Biden Picks for Transportation, Homeland Security

Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay Cabinet secretary confirmed by the Senate and Alejandro Mayorkas is first Latino and first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Then-Transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg is seen at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 21, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate continued its confirmation of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks Tuesday by approving Pete Buttigieg to serve as transportation secretary and Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security.

Buttigieg was confirmed by an 86-13 vote. He is the first openly gay person ever confirmed by the Senate to a Cabinet post.

Opponents in last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Biden and Buttigieg have found common ground over the former U.S. Naval Reserve officer’s interest in reforming public transportation.

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will play a critical role in reforming America’s truck fleet into an all-electric armada. Buttigieg was lauded by the president during the nomination announcement in December as a problem solver who “speaks to the best of who we are as a nation.”

Before the confirmation vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Buttigieg had displayed an impressive familiarity with the challenges facing the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Buttigieg has committed to working with lawmakers on both sides to improve rail and transportation services around the country and Schumer said he was particularly excited to work with the former mayor on improving the New York City transportation authority’s services.

“I’m excited to call him Secretary Pete by the end of the day,” Schumer said.

Buttigieg is the youngest transportation secretary in U.S. history. At his confirmation hearing last month, he criticized “misguided” transportation policies that governed the nation’s highways, railways and skies under former President Donald Trump and former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Those issues compounded to reinforce racial and economic inequalities throughout the nation, he testified.

Chief in Buttigieg’s call to action will be funding for the Biden administration’s goals, which include a $50 billion infusion for road repairs and other infrastructure improvements.

The South Bend native employed a “Smart Streets” program making his community more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, along with improving environmental sustainability. It generated about $100 million for the city but also raised questions about South Bend’s expedited gentrification.

Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said he couldn’t think of anyone more equipped to revitalize American infrastructure, noting Buttigieg’s unique understanding of how the Transportation Department can be a resource for state and local governments.

“If we’re going to build back better, a partnership at each level of government will be absolutely vital,” Peters said Tuesday. “Having someone at the helm who recognizes that that relationship is so important and will be an incredible asset to the department.”

The senator said he and Buttigieg had discussed the auto industry and emphasized Buttigieg’s clear understanding of supporting the industry’s shift towards electric and self-driving technologies created in America.  

“We have an opportunity to save lives but also to create jobs and empower our domestic auto industry to take the moonshot for artificial intelligence and spur technological innovation,” Peters said. “And I am pleased that Secretary-designate Buttigieg has committed to working with us as we craft legislation that establishes a federal framework around these new technologies.”

Then-Homeland Security secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Pool via AP)

Mayorkas was also confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as Homeland Security secretary. He was approved by a closer margin, 56-43, after a handful of Republican senators spoke out against his nomination.

The new secretary was an architect of former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects qualifying immigrants from deportation.

His parents, Sephardic Jews, fled Nazi death camps in the 1930s to Cuba, where he was born, before immigrating to California. Mayorkas would later become the youngest U.S. attorney in the nation after his appointment to the California role by President Bill Clinton.

While working in the Obama administration, Mayorkas was investigated by DHS’ inspector general over allegations he helped top companies secure visas for foreign workers, although a probe found he had broken now laws. His involvement did make poor optics for the program he was alleged of issuing favoritism towards the EB-5 program. Mayorkas maintained he was trying to navigate an already stressed navigation system.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the inspector general probe is a good reason for Republicans to vote against Mayorkas’ nomination.

“We are talking about shoving through green cards as political favors an intervening to overturn denials,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And the IG confirmed this wasn’t just about speed. Mr. Mayorkas’s improper influence changed outcomes.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, also urged her colleagues to vote against the nomination, claiming Mayorkas was “never held accountable for showing favor to some friends in high places.”

But Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, was quick to point out that the top DHS job at the end of the Trump administration was filled by an acting secretary who was never confirmed by the Senate. For the past 21 months, the department was lead by Chad Wolf, whose appointment was found to be illegitimate by a nonpartisan congressional watchdog organization.

Schumer noted Tuesday that Mayorkas would be the first Latino and first immigrant ever confirmed to the DHS leadership role.

“Like most of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees, his nomination is also history-making,” Schumer said.

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