Joe Biden will begin his presidency next week with a Cabinet made up mostly of acting officials as delays in the Senate slow confirmation of his top choices for key positions including Defense and Treasury secretary.
Senators have set Jan. 19, the day before Biden is sworn in, for hearings on his nominees for Homeland Security, Defense, State, and Treasury, the four key posts that are often targeted for confirmation just hours after a president in sworn in. But they might not be confirmed and able to start work for days or even weeks later.
Biden began announcing his Cabinet nominees shortly after the November election, and introduced each person with a pledge that they would be ready to work on “Day One.”
But “Day One” may come and go without confirmations, slowing Biden’s promises to gut, reverse or reform much of President Donald Trump’s actions over the last four years, from the lengthy process of changing regulations to drafting legislation.
Biden can appoint acting heads of agencies while awaiting his nominees to be confirmed. In many cases he will turn to senior career officials to temporarily lead agencies, a transition official said. In a few instances the Biden team has identified Trump political appointees to take on interim roles, after determining that they share the new administration’s values.
Senate-confirmed Democrat members of commissions could take on acting roles leading those agencies until Biden’s selections are confirmed, the official said.
The official declined to provide names of any of the people the transition has identified to lead agencies in an acting capacity.
But a person familiar with the matter said Andy Baukol, a longtime civil servant and now a principal deputy assistant Treasury secretary, is likely to become acting Treasury secretary.
Any of those options would put placeholders in critical departments, who are less likely to take the dramatic actions Biden has promised would get under way immediately.
The Senate, which must hold hearings and then vote on each of an incoming administration’s nominees, has confirmed some past presidents’ nominees hours after their inaugurations.
The setting of hearing dates for Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, State nominee Anthony Blinken and Defense nominee Lloyd Austin suggest the Senate heeded Biden’s calls to get the national security posts confirmed quickly.
“It’s my expectation and hope that the Senate will now move to confirm these nominees promptly and fairly,” Biden said Friday of his nominees for those positions.
“I nominated them back in November,” he said. “Given what our country has been through the last four years, the last few days, given the threats and the risks in this world, they should be confirmed as close to Jan. 20 as possible.”
Biden’s team continues to make a heavy push on those nominees, particularly Homeland Security, a transition official said. The president’s argument is that Mayorkas’s confirmation, in particular, would signal the Senate’s recognition of threats both from overseas — like the massive cyberattack widely blamed on Russia — and from within the U.S., like the mob that attacked the Capitol.
Besides the normal confirmation hearings, Austin also faces a House hearing to waive the rules regarding a former military officer becoming a civilian head of the Defense Department.
On Trump’s first day in office, his secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security were confirmed, and his first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, followed on Feb. 1.
President Barack Obama had seven Cabinet choices cleared by the Senate on Inauguration Day, including his Homeland Security chief. His first Defense secretary, Robert Gates, remained in place from the previous administration. His secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was confirmed on Jan. 21.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had six and three Cabinet members in place on Jan. 20, respectively, according to Senate records. Under both presidents, those included Treasury, Defense and State. The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t created until after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
With Biden’s swearing-in only a week away, the 50-50 split in the Senate adds complexity. Republicans remain in control of committees until Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is inaugurated and can break a tie to make Democrat Chuck Schumer the majority leader.
The last time the Senate had split control, in early 2001 under Bush, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott and Democrat Leader Tom Daschle worked out a power-sharing plan that sped the process. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Schumer are using that pact as a framework for their own plan, but the matter is still unresolved, said a person familiar with their deliberations.
If the House votes to impeach Trump over last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Senate must begin a trial that takes precedence over all other business unless all 100 senators agree other business can also be conducted. The chamber, with a simple majority, can also set the rules for a trial and how long it would last.
Biden said Monday he is talking to senators about having a half-day trial with the other half devoted to his Cabinet or other legislation like economic stimulus or money for coronavirus vaccine distribution. Schumer is exploring whether the Senate could be brought back for an “emergency session” before the Jan. 19 end of a recess to start a trial.
House Democrats may also decide to delay for as long as 100 days handing impeachment documents over to the Senate until after his Cabinet is in place and his legislative priorities are moving along.
It would be difficult for the Senate to speed Yellen, Mayorkas, or Austin into the job on Inauguration Day. That’s one day after confirmation hearings and to move that swiftly would require agreement from every Republican on the relevant committees and the full Senate.
Early partisan jockeying suggests some of the nominations will take more time.
Mayorkas’s hearing could be the most contentious, given his work under Obama to fashion the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which shields from deportation people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Many Republicans oppose that policy.
As for Austin, the House Armed Services Committee has scheduled a Jan. 21 hearing on a waiver he needs because the retired four-star general has been out of uniform for fewer than the required seven years to lead the Defense Department. He also faces some opposition because of his recent work on behalf of Raytheon Technologies Corp., the defense contractor.
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