Senate confirms Biden’s pick for national intelligence director
The Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. intelligence agencies on Wednesday evening, just hours after the new commander-in-chief took office.
Avril Haines, Biden’s pick to serve as director of national intelligence, was confirmed by an 84-10 vote, winning bipartisan support from senators. Haines is Biden’s first Cabinet-level official confirmed by the Senate.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) cleared the way for a vote earlier Wednesday after initially resisting speedy confirmation of her nomination. According to a source familiar with the matter, Cotton wanted Haines to answer a question centering on efforts to prosecute CIA officers who might have been involved with the government’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists.
“[Haines] clarified in a private setting that she had no intention to open up those investigations and expose operations officers inside the CIA to criminal prosecutions or adverse employment action,” Cotton said on the Senate floor after lifting his objection.
Any one senator can object to swift consideration of a nominee. Senate leaders are interested in seeing Biden’s national security nominees in particular given priority on the Senate floor — though significant obstacles remain for the president’s other would-be Cabinet secretaries.
“We appreciate the bipartisan cooperation to get [Haines] confirmed tonight, and we hope there will be a lot more of it because the nation is in crisis and we need President Biden’s team in place as quickly as possible,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Wednesday morning that he would not be attending Biden’s inauguration so that he could address “remaining objections to an expedited Senate confirmation” of Haines. Without mentioning Cotton, he added: “It’s important we do this as soon as possible.”
Cotton was not aiming to hold up her nomination and had not gone public with the back-and-forth as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) did on Tuesday with a separate Cabinet nomination. Hawley said he would hold up quick confirmation of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas.
It’s unclear if Mayorkas can even get out of committee in its current formation, according to a Republican senator. And there are multiple GOP holds on bringing him directly to the floor, not just Hawley, the senator said.
It is customary for a new president to see Cabinet nominees confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day. In 2017, former President Donald Trump saw both his Homeland Security and Defense secretaries confirmed after he was sworn in.
“I look at this as, not ‘do you agree with me’ — but are you qualified, a good person,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “I want to get the key people in place on the national security front.”
But this year, the Senate is facing additional roadblocks. The Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote to give Democrats the majority. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have yet to work out a power-sharing agreement, and as a result, several committee assignments are in flux, creating extra hurdles for Biden’s nominees.
“It’s really disappointing and a little dangerous,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said of the Senate’s slow pace, given the wide array of challenges facing the new administration.
Senators from both parties also want to see Biden’s picks for Treasury secretary and secretary of State, Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken, confirmed rapidly, but those aren’t likely to come to the Senate floor until later this week or early next week.
Lawmakers are also aiming to quickly confirm Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon, but both the House and the Senate must first pass a bill that would exempt him from the requirement that a Defense secretary be at least seven years removed from the military. The House is expected to pass that waiver on Thursday.
At her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Haines, a former CIA deputy director and former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, pledged that she would “speak truth to power” and resist pressure from the president or any other official to slant intelligence.
“When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics — ever,” said Haines, who would make history as the first woman to serve as DNI.
Martin Matishak contributed to this report.