New picks to lead the Pentagon and the US Treasury face key hurdles Tuesday in the Senate, as President Barack Obama fleshes out his second-term cabinet amid trying times for defense and finance.
If they are confirmed as expected, as soon as this week, secretary of defense pick Chuck Hagel and Treasury nominee Jack Lew will face a series of crises, including $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to land Friday.
Democrats, who control the Senate, are confident that Hagel, a Republican ex-senator and Vietnam War veteran, will get the 60 votes needed to bring his confirmation to the floor for a vote despite a bruising confirmation hearing.
His nomination had been delayed by Republicans angered by Hagel’s positions on Iran, nuclear weapons and Israel, and who had sought more information on his finances and speeches to international groups since his Senate retirement.
An earlier attempt to overcome that barrier fell one vote short, but in the intervening week Republican Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he would now support Hagel.
And Senator Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has said Hagel deserves an “up or down” floor vote, said Monday he believed the Senate would confirm the nominee this week.
Lew, Obama’s former chief of staff who was tapped last month to succeed Timothy Geithner at Treasury, was actively involved in the 2011 budget talks that led to the creation of the sequester set to take effect on Friday.
Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, have suggested Lew is likely to be confirmed, and Shelby said he would support the nomination.
Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, however, has sought more disclosure from Lew about the compensation he received in the early 2000s as executive vice president of New York University.
Baucus has scheduled a committee vote for Tuesday, and with Geithner having already stepped down, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said Monday he wants to bring a full vote to the floor “before the end of this week.”
If Republicans move to block Lew, as they did with Hagel, Democrats would again need to assemble 60 out of 100 senators to push the appointment through.
Lew and Hagel would join Obama’s cabinet at a fragile time with the looming sequester, which could harm military readiness and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs amid already sluggish economic growth.
Obama has other posts to fill, including replacements for the secretaries of transportation, energy, labor and interior.
Hagel has been the most controversial nominee to be considered by the Senate for Obama’s second term. But the president also faces tough going for John Brennan, his pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
On Sunday McCain threatened to block Brennan’s confirmation over the lack of White House information on the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya last September 11, which killed four Americans including the US ambassador.
But he downplayed the threat Monday, saying: “I’m not prepared to do anything but expect answers to our questions.”
Republicans have repeatedly sought details about Benghazi, and some have also pressed for more information on the secretive and controversial US drone program.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she hoped to hold a committee vote on Brennan Thursday, after the administration provides material on Benghazi.