GOP Sen. Josh Hawley announced on Tuesday that he plans to object to swift consideration of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, a move that will delay the installment of Biden’s national-security team.
Hawley, who has come under heavy scrutiny for leading a push to object to the Electoral College certification of Biden’s victory, cited the incoming administration’s immigration policies. The Missouri senator argued that the nominee, Alejandro Mayorkas, “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures.”
Senate Democrats had been pushing for quick floor votes on Biden’s national-security nominees in light of the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month. Mayorkas is still likely to be confirmed by the full Senate, but Hawley’s move effectively delays a floor vote.
Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee for his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Mayorkas vowed to do everything in his power to prevent attacks like the one that targeted the Capitol — an insurrection based on unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from President Donald Trump.
Mayorkas addressed the recent insurrection head-on, less than two weeks after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in a series of riots that left five people dead and resulted in the president’s second impeachment. It was the dominant theme in the 2 1/2 hour hearing that also touched on immigration policies and corruption allegations.
“If I should have the honor of being confirmed, I will do everything I can to ensure that the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, and the terror felt by you, your colleagues, staff, and everyone present, will not happen again,” Mayorkas, 61, told senators.
Mayorkas’ confirmation hearing comes as Washington is locking down ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, with fences blocking off large swaths of the city and 25,000 National Guard troops patrolling the streets.
Senate Democrats had been pushing to confirm Mayorkas to lead DHS as soon as this week, noting that the recent national security challenges in the nation’s capital demand steady leadership atop a department that has seen unprecedented turnover at the leadership level during Trump’s administration.
Democrats, who are set to step into the Senate majority later this week, will soon have the power to set the Senate’s schedule, but any one senator can object to swift consideration of a nominee, which allowed Hawley to pump the brakes on the entire process.
While Mayorkas will likely have enough votes to secure confirmation on the Senate floor, he was pressed during the hearing Tuesday about a 2015 inspector general report charging that he displayed “an appearance of favoritism and special access” for certain visa recipients. The report alleged serious abuses with the EB-5 visa process in particular, accusing Mayorkas of giving preferential treatment to political allies.
While Republicans were not adversarial with Mayorkas, they focused intently on the IG report. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said the report was “concerning” and detailed the claims in his opening statement. Portman added that he recently spoke with John Roth, the DHS inspector general at the time, who told him that he stands by the 2015 report.
“There is a troubling inspector general [report] with regard to his previous job,” Portman told reporters after the hearing, though he acknowledged that Mayorkas has “a lot of experience” in the national security field.
Mayorkas has pushed back against the favoritism allegations, which first surfaced in a 2012 whistleblower complaint, calling them false and unfounded. A Biden transition official said Mayorkas inherited a “badly broken” visa system and “took a series of steps to proactively reform the EB-5 program and strengthen the quality and integrity of the process.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested he might even delay quick confirmation of Mayorkas over the controversy, with which he has been intensely involved since the initial whistleblower complaint was filed. Democrats are hoping to confirm Mayorkas as soon as Wednesday, hailing Mayorkas as an experienced and steady leader of a department that has been under siege.
Biden will enter office with zero Cabinet confirmations, which is highly unusual for an incoming president. The Senate usually processes high-level national-security nominations in early January as a show of deference toward the new president.
Mayorkas’ hearing came on the final full day of Trump’s presidency, when the outgoing commander-in-chief has been avoiding the spotlight and hunkering down in the White House ahead of his departure on Wednesday morning. Trump was barely mentioned during the hearing, but GOP senators pressed Mayorkas on preserving at least some of Trump’s DHS policies, particularly with regard to immigration.
Mayorkas acknowledged the “horrifying” nature of the Jan. 6 attack and noted that there remains much to be learned about the full extent of the violent attack. He drew on his experience as an immigrant fleeing a communist country as he seeks to lead a department of more than a quarter-million employees.
Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami and Los Angeles, has an extensive resumé of government service. He served as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California from 1998 to 2001, and led U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the first four years of Barack Obama’s administration. He later served as deputy homeland security secretary from 2013 to 2016.
“The love for this country that I learned from my parents made the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol all the more horrifying,” Mayorkas told senators.
In addition to Mayorkas, Biden’s nominees to lead the Treasury Department, State Department, Pentagon, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also appeared for confirmation hearings on Tuesday as Biden pushes for swift approval of his picks, specifically those involving U.S. national security. That could prove to be difficult for Biden, though, as the Senate is set to soon put Trump on trial again after the House impeached him last week for inciting the riots at the Capitol.
Biden’s administration is expected to depart significantly from the Trump administration’s DHS policies, most notably on immigration and border security. Biden has vowed to hold accountable the officials responsible for the so-called “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border, which resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents and housed in cages. The policy was pushed by Trump and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in particular.
Biden is expected to unveil a sweeping new immigration plan when he takes office, and he has pledged more broadly to rollback the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies. Last week, a new wave of migrants began a trip toward the U.S. southern border from Central America, heightening security concerns.
As director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mayorkas was critical in implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides a legal shield to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. Trump has repeatedly sought to scrap the program, and Biden is seeking to codify it into law.
Biden is also aiming for stability with his Cabinet after four years of firings and resignations that led to several departments and agencies not having a Senate-confirmed leader. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, had six secretaries throughout Trump’s four years, and only two of them were confirmed by the Senate.