Biden on track to take office without key Cabinet roles in place

President-elect Joe Biden is on track to take office without key Cabinet members being confirmed on the day of his inauguration, a result of the Republican-led Senate moving much more slowly to schedule confirmation hearings and votes than it has for previous presidents.

The timeline for confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees could accelerate when Democrats take control of the Senate in the coming days. But Republicans, amid the coronavirus pandemic and the Capitol riots, have been slow to schedule confirmation hearings.

The first set of hearings is scheduled to take place January 19 — days and in some cases weeks after those hearings have begun in recent transitions — with no dates for confirmation set.

The latest delay came when the Senate Intelligence Committee postponed what would have been the first confirmation hearing for a Biden nominee, moving from Friday until next Tuesday the hearing for Biden’s pick to be the next director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

That makes next Tuesday — the day before Biden’s inauguration — one jam-packed with confirmation hearings, with Biden’s nominees to helm the defense, homeland security, state and treasury departments all scheduled to take place.

The proximity to Biden’s inauguration makes it unlikely Biden administration confirmations will proceed at the same pace as his predecessors in recent decades, with all new presidents in the last 30 years seeing at least some Cabinet nominees confirmed on the days of their inauguration.

The early days of Biden’s administration will see a collision in Congress of the Senate’s trial of outgoing President Donald Trump, the process of confirming Biden’s nominees and talks over Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus vaccine and economic stimulus proposal.

With Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer set to replace Republican Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader following Biden’s swearing-in and the swearing-in of two Georgia Democrats who won runoffs there this month — making Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote in a Senate split 50-50 — the confirmation schedule could accelerate.

Biden officials are pressing for the Senate to operate on multiple tracks at once, holding confirmation hearings during Trump’s impeachment trial. In a briefing with reporters Friday evening, Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointed to Trump’s first impeachment, noting that the Senate held unrelated hearings during that trial.

“Our expectation and hope and belief is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Psaki said. “We are urging fast action on getting these nominees into place … as close to day one as possible.”

Biden’s transition team made a push this week to get confirmation hearings for national security posts onto Senate committees’ schedule.

Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement Friday that while hearings for key posts have since been scheduled, “the American people deserve assurances that swift floor votes will follow.”

“Progress towards confirmations still lags significantly behind where it was at this point during the last two presidential transitions, and it is essential that key national security and economic leaders are confirmed and in place on day one. And the Senate held hearings throughout last year’s impeachment proceedings.”

Experts said that with Biden facing immediate challenges combating the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, as well as facing national security threats following the January 6 riot at the Capitol, getting his agency heads in place quickly is crucial.

“There’s never been a more important time to get confirmed nominees in place because we’re dealing with an economic crisis, a health crisis and a political crisis,” said David Marchick, the director of the non-profit Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service.

Anticipating a delay in confirmation votes, Biden’s transition team is identifying officials across the government to serve as acting secretaries to oversee what he hopes is a seamless transition of power, people familiar with the matter said.

David Norquist, the current deputy defense secretary, is being asked to run the Pentagon until Biden’s new team is in place, the sources said. He will remain in place until the confirmation of Lloyd Austin, the retired general whose nomination requires a waiver from the House and Senate because he has not been away from the military for the required seven years.

In the coming days, Biden aides say, other officials will be named in key agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Justice Department.

Biden has also moved more quickly than his predecessors in recent decades in filling White House roles and department positions that don’t require Senate confirmation — which means that many of his selections can begin their work on January 20, even if Cabinet nominees are delayed.

“We need to move quickly to get the right people in these agencies and to make sure that we’re keeping this country safe and we’re ready for whatever threats might come,” Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, said in a live interview with The Washington Post on Friday.