US Senate takes up Biden’s top cabinet selections

New era opens in Washington as spotlight falls on Biden’s nominees for governing roles at State Department and Pentagon.

President-elect Joe Biden needs quick Senate approval of his top cabinet nominees to get his new administration up and running [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

US President-elect’s Joe Biden’s nominees for secretary of state and secretary of defence are appearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as the Senate begins the process of confirming his cabinet selections.

On the eve of Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, longtime aide Antony Blinken will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and retired US Army General Lloyd Austin will be in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Three other cabinet nominees are appearing in other confirmation hearings on Tuesday and one more will be heard by the end of the week.

As secretary of state, Blinken, 58, is stepping into a vital diplomatic role after four years in which President Donald Trump’s administration downplayed diplomacy and traditional US alliances.

Blinken previously served as Biden’s top staffer at the White House National Security Council and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken worked together in the Obama White House. [Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters]

He can be expected to take a tougher approach towards Russia and will restart diplomacy with Iran. Beijing will remain a complex challenge for Washington after US-China relations reached new lows under Trump.

Biden’s defence secretary nominee, Austin, 67, is a retired US Army General who forged close ties with Biden when he commanded US forces in Iraq from 2010 to 2012. If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black secretary of defence.

But he faces a hurdle in winning that confirmation; Austin retired from the military in 2016 and will need Congress to waive a law that says no one can be appointed secretary of defence within seven years of active military duty.

Retired US General Lloyd Austin was announced by Biden as his nominee for secretary of defence on December 9, 2020. [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

“Civilian control, civil-military relations and democratic norms are all fragile right now, and will require active efforts to rebuild and strengthen,” Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the US Naval War College told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

While Austin’s “leadership could be a step in the right direction of diversifying the upper levels of the national security establishment”, the incoming Biden administration will need to do “what it can to rebuild civilian expertise and authority in the Department of Defense”, Cohn said.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, on Monday tweeted his support for Austin.

Also on Tuesday, Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee to be the director of National Intelligence, the US’s top spy, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing.

Haines, 51, is a former deputy director of the CIA and former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama. She would be the first woman to occupy the position, which was created by Congress after the September 11 attacks.

Haines has been criticised by human rights groups and progressives for her authorisation of extrajudicial killings in drone attacks while at the White House during the Obama administration.

Democratic senators should question Haines about the CIA’s torture programme, which was implemented under former President George W Bush, said CIA whistle-blower John Kiriakou said in a video posted on Twitter.

Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas appeared before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday. Mayorkas came to the US from Cuba as an infant with his parents in 1960 and grew up in California.

The 61-year-old has been in private legal practice in Washington for the past four years, after having served as deputy secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

Other nominees

The nomination of Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, is being questioned by the Senate Finance Committee in a confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Yellen, 74, would be the first woman to serve as treasury secretary, a position that sets much of the economic agenda in any president’s administration.

Yellen and Biden face a huge task getting the US economy growing again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps more than any other cabinet position, Yellen’s will have a big effect on Biden’s future political prospects, which are inextricably tied to the strength of the US economy.

Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg is scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday, while Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Denis McDonough’s confirmation hearing has been set for January 27.

Source: Al Jazeera