An impeachment trial is looming, and the Senate majority is set to change hands in the next couple days. But when the dust settles after Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, Democrats are hoping he won’t have a totally bare Cabinet.
Senior Democrats are optimistic that Biden will see at least two of his top national security officials confirmed either on Inauguration Day or shortly thereafter, particularly after the pro-Trump siege of the Capitol last week by rioters and extremists. That would allow Biden to at least claim equal treatment to President Donald Trump, who had his Homeland Security and Defense secretaries confirmed on Inauguration Day, followed days later by his CIA director.
Democrats also hope to make Janet Yellen the new Treasury secretary and Tony Blinken the new secretary of State in the coming days. But they say the minimum bar should be confirming Alejandro Mayorkas to the Department of Homeland Security and retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to the Defense Department to beef up national security.
“Obviously we need a Department of the Treasury and other key positions, certainly. But in terms of the security of the country, there’s a great sense of urgency,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 4 Democratic leader, in an interview on Monday afternoon. Republicans “should absolutely be working with us to do at minimum, the confirmations that we supported for President Trump.”
Mayorkas, Austin, Blinken, Yellen and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines all have hearings on Tuesday. Haines is another prospect for quick confirmation given the politics and mood in Congress about the security breach in the Capitol.
“I would hope that our Republican colleagues would join us in putting the secretary of Defense, secretary of Homeland Security, secretary of State, attorney general and others in office ASAP,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on Sunday. “When President Trump was president on the first day, both Defense and Homeland Security were put into office. We Democrats supported that happening, we need cooperation.”
In the Senate, any one senator can object to quick votes. When Schumer becomes majority leader, he can force votes himself on Cabinet nominees, but each would take several days. Democrats can confirm nominees in the Senate unilaterally once they have the majority.
While Austin is popular in both parties, his confirmation is more difficult because he needs a waiver to serve as Defense secretary since he has not been out of the military for the minimum of seven years. The House must pass that waiver before he can be confirmed, and Democratic leaders there say it’s a top priority.
“The internal security threat the U.S. faces right now is serious. We need a Secretary of Defense on the job immediately,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who explained he voted against Mattis’ waiver but supports Austin’s because there’s “simply much less reason to be fearful of a recently retired general running DoD under Biden.”
Confirmation of any Cabinet officials could be tough on Inauguration Day for a variety of factors. Three new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia plus Alex Padilla of California, must be sworn in. And Kamala Harris must be the vice president to give Democrats a 50-seat majority with Harris breaking ties. All those events should be official by late Wednesday or Thursday.
Moreover, the committees and the overall Senate must be organized by Schumer and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Those negotiations are ongoing, though they will likely follow much of the precedent from the last 50-50 majority 20 years ago. And heightening the intrigue: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to send Trump’s impeachment articles over to the Senate.
An impeachment trial could preempt other business unless McConnell and Schumer strike an agreement on a schedule for Biden’s confirmations and the trial. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said on MSNBC on Monday that he believed the impeachment trial would not start on Inauguration Day.
McConnell and Schumer have been in discussions for several days and remain in contact, said a source familiar with the matter. McConnell has said he would treat Biden’s nominees much better than Schumer treated Trump’s, though Democrats remember McConnell not being especially kind to President Barack Obama’s picks.
“So much of how we proceed is about whether or not Mitch McConnell is gonna want to help get the personnel in place for the security of the country and want to work with Chuck Schumer to move forward. Or will he take a position he has before with President Obama?" Stabenow said. “We don’t know. And that makes a difference.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.