Republicans take on Biden’s Cabinet, but without the Trumpian fury

Senate Republicans are ready to move on from the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency and revert to the ideological battle lines and policy disputes that previously characterized Washington.

Throughout a series of five back-to-back Cabinet confirmation hearings on Tuesday, Senate Republicans displayed a return-to-normal posture — staking out traditional conservative arguments and outlining their disagreements with the incoming Biden administration, but largely through a respectful back-and-forth with nominees.

It’s a stark departure from the tumultuous, freewheeling Cabinet fights that defined the Trump era. And it suggests that Joe Biden, a longtime creature of the Senate, has at least a chance of success in his bid to work with the GOP. Top Republicans signaled their interest in quickly confirming his intelligence chief, Treasury secretary and Homeland Security secretary.

“I think it’s very, very important that we have a secretary of Homeland Security in place as soon as possible,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters.

But Tuesday’s confirmation hearings also showed that Biden could soon run into the scorched-earth politics that Democrats lament have seized much of the Republican Party. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) declared that he would object to swift consideration of Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, all but ensuring Biden won’t have some of his top national security officials confirmed on Inauguration Day, as Trump and his predecessors did.

Mayorkas came under scrutiny at his hearing from some Republicans over a 2015 inspector general report outlining allegations of politically motivated favoritism in the issuance of visas, which he rejected. But Hawley’s objection focused on what the Missouri Republican perceived as Mayorkas’ hostility to border-security measures that he and other immigration hard-liners support.

Still, the fact that it was a policy-driven focus was yet another sign that Republicans of all stripes may be looking to turn the page from the Trump presidency, which was marked by endless controversies, tweets and investigations that seriously hampered Trump’s presidency. Republicans may still try to block much of Biden’s legislative agenda, but they’re ultimately not going to fight him on every appointment.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called on the Senate to confirm Biden’s national security nominees on Inauguration Day. Such a move wouldn’t be unusual. Trump had his Pentagon and Homeland Security nominees confirmed on his first day as president in 2017. But Biden will need Republican cooperation to catch up to that pace — especially with an impeachment trial looming over the chamber.

“President Biden should have the same officials in place on his inauguration day at the very least,” Schumer said. “That is the expectation and tradition for any administration, especially now in the midst of a homeland security crisis.”

In a letter to the GOP conference obtained by POLITICO, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told members that the Senate could vote Wednesday afternoon on Cabinet nominees.

The looming impeachment trial for Trump on charges he incited the deadly siege at the Capitol could pose difficulties for Biden as he looks to enact his agenda. Some top Republicans are calling on Biden to ask Democratic leaders to call off the trial so that the chamber can focus on other business, though Schumer has already affirmed that the Senate will hold a trial.

“I would like [Biden] to get up and running, but he has to help,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “If we go into impeachment, he has nobody to blame but himself because we're going to be focused on impeaching the president, you can’t do both at once.”

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to delay formal transmission of the impeachment article, thereby pushing back the start of the trial, several Republicans were joining Democrats’ calls for quick confirmations in the meantime.

Among the slate of nominees appearing before the Senate on Tuesday was Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the incoming vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, said he wanted to “fill this critical national security position as early into the Biden administration as possible.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing for Janet Yellen’s Treasury Secretary nomination was a stark contrast to that of Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The former film producer and investment banker had faced deep skepticism from Democrats; no one took issue with the credentials of Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chief.

While Senate Republicans foreshadowed disagreements with Yellen, they kept their questions centered on policy, including the tax code and the size of the national debt. Yellen’s confirmation should ultimately go smoothly.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) also expressed concern with Biden’s coronavirus relief plan, a sign that GOP support for another stimulus package might be shaky.

“I look forward to working with you but I have to admit the contours of the stimulus bill as proposed by the Biden administration are going to make that difficult,” Toomey said at the hearing. “The only organizing principle that I can discern is that it seems to spend as much money as possible seemingly for the sake of spending it.”

Aside from Toomey and a handful of others, most in the GOP avoided acknowledging that Trump presided over a flood of red ink. With Biden in the White House, concerns over rising budget deficits are sure to return.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, as well as Pentagon nominee Lloyd Austin, also faced cordial receptions from Senate Republicans, but not without criticism.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Blinken that “it’d be a grave mistake to confirm a secretary of State who has a demonstrated track record of repeatedly making the wrong decisions when it comes to American foreign policy and national security.”

And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential 2024 White House contender, announced Tuesday he would oppose a waiver allowing Austin to become defense secretary, which is necessary because Austin has been out of the military for less than seven years. The hawkish GOP senator voted for the waiver to allow Jim Mattis to become Trump’s defense secretary.

While Biden can ultimately see his nominees confirmed with a simple majority, his broader agenda will need cooperation from a Senate that is now evenly split, allowing no room for Democratic dissent and requiring Republican input on most bills.

During his floor remarks Tuesday, McConnell warned that the 2020 election results suggested that neither party had an explicit mandate from voters.

“Americans elected a closely divided Senate, a closely divided House and a presidential candidate who said he’d represent everyone,” McConnell said. “We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can and check and balance one another respectfully where we must.”

Zachary Warmbrodt and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

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Republicans tepid on Trump’s pick for intelligence post — again

Senate Republicans were cool to President Donald Trump’s pick to be director of national intelligence the first time he was nominated. And the second time appears no different.

GOP senators were treading carefully on Monday over whether they’d vote to confirm Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to lead the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, with several lawmakers offering tepid praise for the firebrand congressman but refusing to rule out ultimately supporting him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Trump for seeking the Senate’s input by nominating a director of national intelligence — something the president has been hesitant to pursue for several high-level executive branch positions. Many posts remain left vacant or are occupied by officials who haven’t been confirmed by the Senate.

But McConnell didn’t weigh in on Ratcliffe’s qualifications to lead the country’s sprawling intelligence apparatus, and other Senate Republicans followed suit by asserting that they didn’t know much about the Trump loyalist who already once withdrew from consideration amid claims he exaggerated his resume.

“President Trump has a strong track record of sending the Senate impressive nominees for national security posts who are well prepared to protect our nation and defend our interests,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I hope Congressman Ratcliffe will impress senators just as did the other members of the president’s team and earn a bipartisan confirmation vote.”

McConnell said he looked forward to meeting Ratcliffe in person and expressed faith in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ability to hold a “fair confirmation process.”

Many Senate Republicans reiterated Monday that they didn’t know much about Ratcliffe, a three-term conservative lawmaker — offering a similar response to when Trump first announced his intent to nominate him last year.

“I know very little about Congressman Ratcliffe,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “I will be looking into his background and record. But until I do, I really can’t comment on how I’ll vote on that.”

“I don’t know him, so I don’t have an opinion on that yet,” added Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Other senior Republicans offered a more encouraging response.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said he backed the nomination and predicted Ratcliffe would be confirmed.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the intelligence panel, also said Monday that he is fully supportive of Ratcliffe’s nomination and is optimistic that he can clear the 51-vote threshold in the Senate. He added that given Democratic opposition to Richard Grenell, the current acting intelligence chief, Ratcliffe now has an easier road to confirmation.

“I don’t think anybody changed their opinion of John Ratcliffe. What changed was the pathway to get somebody confirmed,” Burr said. “If Democrats want to vote against him and have Grenell stay on as acting until the end of the year, that’s fine with me.”

Trump installed Grenell, his ambassador to Germany, as acting DNI last month, replacing Joseph Maguire, who also served as acting intelligence chief since August. Democrats criticized the president for bypassing Congress by naming Grenell as an acting chief, particularly because Grenell lacks experience in the intelligence community.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an Intelligence Committee member, appeared eager to move forward with the nomination, calling Ratcliffe “smart” and “intellectually capable,” while expressing concern about Grenell’s dual roles in Washington and Berlin.

“[Grenell] still holds the post in Germany, which eventually he either has to get back to or we’re going to have to put somebody else,” Rubio said. “You can’t have that post vacant. And you can’t do both jobs.”

Before Ratcliffe was nominated, Grenell was only able to serve through March 11 under federal vacancy laws. Now, Grenell — another fierce Trump ally — can stay on for months longer while Ratcliffe's nomination is pending.

Trump reportedly forced Maguire out after an official working under him briefed the House Intelligence Committee on Russia’s purported efforts to aid Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.

Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney in Texas, served as a chief defender of the president during the House’s impeachment inquiry. As a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, he had a prominent role in the questioning of witnesses who spoke about allegations that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure that country’s government to investigate Joe Biden.

Ratcliffe was also a member of Trump’s outside impeachment team during the Senate’s trial. The group included other close allies of the president, like Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Though Ratcliffe lacks a deep intelligence background, several Senate Republicans said such experience wasn’t necessary.

“I really haven’t looked closely at his — any intelligence cred. But in general, he seems like a guy that should do well at the job,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said in an interview. “That whole idea whether you need people who are steeped in experience versus somebody that’s just generally maybe good across the board — as the CEO of my own company, it wasn’t always a no-brainer to take somebody that had been around a long time.”

“I’m certainly not an intelligence expert. He may not be either, but he’s certainly a very good lawyer, good legislator, knows the bureaucracy and he’s got the trust of the president,” added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a potential swing vote, has yet to weigh in on Ratcliffe’s latest nomination. Last year, Collins simply said she had not met him.

Trump announced last July that he would nominate Ratcliffe to succeed Maguire but never formally submitted the nomination to the Senate and pulled the pick days later amid reports that Ratcliffe had embellished aspects of his resume. At the time, Trump stood by Ratcliffe and said he was being treated “unfairly” by the news media.

Senate Democrats have indicated that they will oppose Ratcliffe, arguing that he does not have the necessary experience to serve in the role and is being picked because of his support for the president.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) ripped Ratcliffe on Monday as an “alarmingly partisan choice” and urged Senate Republicans to reject his nomination.

“He was a fierce critic of the Mueller investigation, earned praise from deep-state conspiracy theorists,” Schumer said. “It is such a decline in America when this great agency, where people have risked their lives for America, quietly is made into a political football. … With this nomination, President Trump has shown again a lack of respect for the rule of law.”

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Senate votes to limit Trump’s military authority against Iran

The Senate on Thursday passed a resolution limiting President Donald Trump’s authority to attack Iran without congressional approval, delivering the president another bipartisan foreign-policy rebuke and flexing its constitutional power over military actions.

The 55-45 vote came nearly six weeks after Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general who led the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds force. The strike drew immediate condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, and it prompted Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to introduce a War Powers resolution aimed at re-asserting Congress’ constitutional authority to declare war.

Kaine’s resolution requires the president to cease all hostilities targeting Iran within 30 days unless explicitly approved by Congress. It is expected to pass the House later this month, but Trump is likely to veto the measure. It needed only a simple majority to clear the Senate.

“War is the most solemn responsibility we have, and it cannot be outsourced to anyone,” Kaine said ahead of the final vote. “We have a special obligation to make sure we deliberate — and deliberate carefully — before we send troops into harm’s way.”

In the years following the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force against al Qaeda and Iraq, Congress has largely abdicated its war-making powers to the executive branch. If Kaine’s bill clears through the House as expected, it will be the second time a War Powers resolution has reached Trump’s desk — after last year’s House and Senate passage of a similar bill to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war. Trump vetoed that measure.

Thursday’s vote capped a weeks-long push by Kaine and other senators to respond to Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani in Iraq, where administration officials claimed he was plotting attacks against Americans.

"The Senate just sent a clear shot across the bow, a bipartisan majority of senators don’t want the president waging war without congressional approval, that sums up the whole thing," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after the vote. “Trump or any other president cannot plunge the United States into an endless conflict in the Middle East."

Kaine’s effort was jolted when key senators from both parties expressed deep frustration after a classified all-senators briefing a week after Soleimani’s death. During that briefing, according to senators, top Trump administration officials struggled to defend the rationale — both strategic and legal — for the strike. Formal consideration of the War Powers resolution was on hold during the Senate’s three week impeachment trial.

In addition to all 47 Democrats, eight Republicans supported the War Powers measure — Susan Collins of Maine, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Senate Republican leaders vehemently opposed it, and on Wednesday, Trump urged senators to vote against it, appearing to turn the vote into a loyalty test for the GOP.

“We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party.”

Indeed, Trump has struggled to maintain unified GOP support for his foreign-policy moves — often making impulse-driven decisions that shock Trump’s congressional allies and foes alike. Thursday’s vote further underscored the hawk-versus-dove divisions among Republicans when it comes to foreign policy and national security issues.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Democrats were “pretending as though the president is rushing to war.”

“But the facts just aren’t there. There is no war with Iran. An airstrike is not war,” Inhofe added.

Earlier Thursday, Democrats defeated a last-ditch effort to tank the measure altogether when the Senate voted to kill an amendment from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would have created an exemption for military forces deemed to be engaging in operations targeting foreign designated terrorist groups. Democrats sounded the alarm about the amendment, arguing that it would effectively gut the underlying effort.

Kaine said Cotton’s proposal “would establish a very dangerous precedent” by allowing a president to launch military operations against any foreign organizations designated by the executive branch as terrorist groups. Cotton accused Kaine of acting as “a lawyer for Iranian terrorists” in opposing his amendment.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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