WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s Cabinet rounded further into form Tuesday with the approval of two nominees and confirmation hearings on three more.
The Senate approved former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to serve in the same position in Biden’s Cabinet. That vote came shortly after senators confirmed Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations.
Two more nominees – Deb Haaland for Interior and Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services – appeared before separate committees for confirmation hearings where GOP senators grilled the Biden picks.
Still, both are expected to win approval in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Also, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a second day of testimony on Merrick Garland’s nomination for attorney general – all from witnesses who gave glowing testimony of Biden’s pick to run the Justice Department. The Senate is expected to vote next week on whether to endorse his nomination before it heads to the floor for a vote.
Here’s a look at what happened Tuesday:
The Senate easily approved Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination Tuesday to be ambassador to the United Nations, a post that will quickly thrust her into the international spotlight.
Despite some fireworks during her confirmation hearing, Thomas-Greenfield won strong bipartisan support in Tuesday’s 78-20 vote.
At the U.N., Thomas-Greenfield will have a high-profile role in the Biden administration’s efforts to restore America’s standing as a global leader. And she will face an early test of her diplomatic mettle: The U.S. is scheduled to hold the Security Council’s rotating presidency in March, giving the U.S. ambassador leverage to shape the body’s agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Thomas-Greenfield “exceptionally qualified” for the U.N. post and said her confirmation was urgent.
“She’ll assume the role of the U.N. ambassador at a time when the nations of the world must deepen their cooperation in the fight against COVID-19 and the fight against climate change, among other critical priorities,” the Democratic leader said during Monday evening’s debate on her candidacy.
By a 92-7 vote, the Senate returned Vilsack to the Cabinet.
Already the second-longest-serving U.S secretary of agriculture, the former Iowa governor is set to begin an unprecedented return engagement. He served in the same position from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama.
Vilsack told Senate agriculture committee members at his confirmation hearing Feb. 2 that he would return to lead the 70,000-employee, $146 billion-a-year agency with the understanding that “it’s a fundamentally different time.”
“I am a different person. And it is a different department,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack 70, said the nation faces immediate challenges from the coronavirus public health crisis, including getting food to hungry Americans, protecting frontline meatpackers and farmworkers, and rebuilding the U.S. economy from its pandemic-induced recession.
He also said farmers can lead in the fight against climate change; the Agriculture Department can address systemic racial inequities within farm programs; the U.S. can solve chronic hunger for millions of families and it can address the problem of concentrated control of resources in the farm industry.
Haaland’s chances of being the first Native American to land a Cabinet post hit some choppy waters during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.
Republican senators not only criticized Biden’s climate change policies but some of Haaland’s past statements opposing fossil fuels, as well as her October tweet that “Republicans don’t believe in science.”
“Rep. Haaland’s positions are squarely at odds with the mission of the Department of Interior,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the panel’s top Republican, said as the hearing opened. “That mission includes managing our nation’s oil, gas and coal resources in a responsible manner. Not eliminating access to them.”
Despite the concerns of Barrasso and other senators from fossil fuel states, Haaland is expected to win confirmation.
All five witnesses at Garland’s confirmation hearing Tuesday praised the judge and former federal prosecutor, signaling his likely bipartisan confirmation next week as Biden’s attorney general.
Garland, a longtime federal judge and former federal prosecutor, testified Monday. On Tuesday, the witnesses called by Democrats and Republicans spoke to his capability to become America’s top law enforcement official.
Wade Henderson, interim CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, led off the Democratic witnesses in saying the Justice Department was “deeply tarnished” during the Trump administration through its support for discriminatory voting laws.
Becerra faced the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions for his confirmation hearing as the nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino secretary appointed to the role. As HHS secretary, he would play a crucial role in combating the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. surpassed 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Monday.
Becerra faces two days of contentious Senate hearings and is set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, which will vote on advancing his nomination.
Prior to the hearing, some GOP lawmakers said Becerra, a former attorney with no medical experience, is unqualified to helm HHS, a $1.4 trillion agency with a broad portfolio, during the pandemic.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the HELP Committee, pushed back on the criticism when she opened the confirmation hearing.
“While the Trump administration ignored crises that impact public health like this pandemic, climate change and systemic racism, Attorney General Becerra has taken them on,” she said.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Bart Jansen, Savannah Behrmann; Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register