Senate confirmation hearings get underway for Biden’s Cabinet nominees

U.S.

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office Wednesday with only a few of his top chosen deputies in place.

The Democrat’s Cabinet appointees are awaiting approval by the Senate, and panels held their first confirmation hearings on Tuesday. Here’s the latest on the vetting of Biden’s nominees.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, listens to Janet Yellen give her opening statement during a Senate panel hearing to examine the expected nomination of Janet Yellen to be Secretary of the Treasury in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY

Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, met with the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday morning. The longtime economic policymaker is no stranger to testifying before lawmakers and would be the first person in history to have headed the Treasury, the Fed and the White House Council of Economic Advisers, if confirmed. She would also be the first woman to lead Treasury. The role would give her broad power over U.S. fiscal policy at a time when the economy is struggling, but Biden’s big-spending recovery plans and proposed tax hikes will be subjected to Republican scrutiny.

Yellen on Tuesday urged lawmakers to “act big” on the next coronavirus relief package, adding that the benefits outweigh the costs of a higher debt burden.

“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.

“I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time,” she said.

Nominee for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee during a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021. Melina Mara/Pool via REUTERS

DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE

Avril Haines, a deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama and the first woman to serve as CIA deputy director, would take over a job created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to coordinate the work of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. Republican and Democratic Senate sources said Haines was expected to win confirmation but that she would face questions about her views on national security challenges, from Russia to cyber warfare.

Haines said at her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that under her watch, the intelligence community would have a supporting role in assessing the threat coming from domestic extremists like the ones who stormed the U.S. Capitol this month.

She said that the primary responsibility for U.S.-based threats belongs to the FBI and the Department Homeland Security. But she added that she expects that intelligence agencies would be involved in those discussions, particularly if there are connections between Americans and foreign-based extremist groups.

Pressed by both Republican and Democratic senators on the importance of the Chinese intelligence threat, Haines said she would make it a priority to devote more resources to China.

“Our approach to China has to evolve and essentially meet the reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today,” she said. “I do support an aggressive stance, in a sense, to deal with the challenge that we are facing.”

Haines also told the committee that U.S. agencies have “not solved the issue” of deterring cyber attacks and have not yet figured out how to handle such asymmetric threats.

Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee that will vote on her nomination, Haines drew an implicit contrast to the Trump administration, which at times has been accused of politicizing intelligence agency findings.

“The DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power — even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” she said. “The DNI must insist that, when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics — ever.”

Haines’ confirmation was expected to move rapidly, a Democratic congressional official said, though some activists have questioned her role in helping to manage the CIA’s response to probes of its past use of harsh interrogation techniques.

In a possible effort to neutralize that issue, Haines told the panel she would not permit their use and that she believed “waterboarding in fact constitutes torture under the law.”

In a written answer to panel questions, she said she believed that post-Sept. 11, 2001, interrogation methods used on suspected extremists “included torture, which violates U.S. commitments and obligations” under U.S. laws and international conventions.

Senator Mark Warner, the panel’s incoming chairman, praised Haines in a statement. He said the committee would schedule a vote on her nomination as soon as possible, and urged the full Senate to confirm her “without any unnecessary delay.”

Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Bill Clark/Pool via AP)

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY

The Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel will interview Alejandro Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor and a Cuban immigrant, for a crucial role overseeing Biden’s border security and emergency response agencies. Biden is preparing to present a proposed comprehensive reform of immigration laws to Congress when he takes office on Wednesday, a long-sought legislative achievement that has eluded presidents from both parties. The Department of Homeland Security, which Mayorkas would lead, has some 240,000 employees in areas from border patrol and customs enforcement to cybersecurity, disaster readiness and relief, including the U.S. Coast Guard and Secret Service.

Mayorkas said during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that the incoming administration hasn’t yet decided what it’ll do with the already completed sections of border wall built under President Donald Trump.

When asked about it Tuesday, he said that Biden has committed to halting Trump’s wall project but that he would have to study the costs and benefits of tearing down already built sections.

He noted that when he served as DHS deputy secretary he was told by Border Patrol officials that what was needed is a combination of barriers, additional agents and technology and equipment. “What I heard is we need a diverse approach to border security,” he said.

FILE – In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

SECRETARY OF STATE

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken Tuesday faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he was once a staffer and Biden was once chairman.

Blinken said during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday the incoming administration planned a full review of the U.S. approach to North Korea to look at ways to increase pressure on the country to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the United States would also look at providing humanitarian help to North Korea if needed, Blinken said.

“We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation,” he said.

Asked by Democratic Senator Ed Markey whether he would, with the ultimate aim of North Korea denuclearizing, support a “phased agreement” that offered tailored sanctions relief to Pyongyang in return for a verifiable freeze in its weapons programs, Blinken replied:

“I think we have to review, and we intend to review, the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration. And it’s a problem that has not gotten better – in fact, it’s gotten worse.”

He said the aim of the review would be to “look at what options we have, and what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.”

Blinken said this would start with consulting closely with allies and partners, particularly with South Korea and Japan.

FILE – In this Dec. 9, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE

Retired Army General Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that he would work to rid “racists and extremists” from the ranks of the U.S. military, mend alliances and focus strategically on China if confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden’s defense secretary.

Austin would become America’s first Black defense secretary and has declared his intention to improve diversity within the U.S. military, which is diverse in the lower ranks but largely white and male at the top.

Pentagon data show a large number of minority servicemembers experience racial harassment and discrimination, and this month’s siege of the Capitol by far-right extremists has thrown a spotlight on supporters of such ideologies within the U.S. armed forces.

“If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” Austin, 67, said at his confirmation hearing.

“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Austin’s remarks came minutes after the Pentagon confirmed that 12 members of the National Guard had been removed from duty ahead of Democrat Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday following vetting, which included scrubbing them for ties to extremism.

Austin would require a waiver from Congress since he has not been out of uniform long enough, a rule meant to safeguard civilian control of the U.S. armed forces. The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote on Thursday on whether to grant the waiver, according to the chamber’s schedule.

In this April 29, 2019 file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, from South Bend, Indiana, listens during a lunch meeting with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, Pool)

SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION

Biden’s onetime rival for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination – former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg – is nominated for transportation secretary. The department oversees aviation, highways, vehicles, pipelines and transit. Biden has proposed spending $20 billion immediately to help struggling U.S. transit systems that have seen a massive falloff in ridership amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He also wants to require face masks in interstate travel and spend $2 trillion overall on an infrastructure, climate and jobs program. The spending will require congressional approval.

Buttigieg’s hearing will be held by the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation panel on Thursday at 10 a.m. EST.

Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the Biden administration’s choice to be veterans affairs secretary, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

Former White House aide Denis McDonough, who served alongside Biden in Obama’s administration, is the incoming administration’s pick to lead Veterans Affairs. His selection caught some advocates for veterans off guard because he has never served in the armed forces. The department includes a vast health agency with more than 1,000 facilities.

His hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee takes place on Jan. 27 at 3 p.m. EST.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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