President-elect Joe Biden announced his picks to lead the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs in early December. When they’ll actually be confirmed into those roles is still unclear.
In 2017, Senate lawmakers were able to finalize the nominations of the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs within a few days of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
But the uncertainty over control of the Senate has pushed some of that confirmation work back by several weeks. Instead of combing through the candidates’ resumes, Senate leaders are still wondering who will control the chamber in the 117th Congress, with two Georgia seats to be decided in a Jan. 5 runoff.
If Democrats win both races, they could fast-track the nominees — retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for the Department of Defense and Denis McDonough for Veterans Affairs — to get them in place close to the Jan. 20 inauguration date.
If Republicans win either race and retain control of the Senate, those confirmations could slow considerably.
GOP leaders have not announced any firm plans to block either nominee from the Democratic president elect, but the candidates could face lengthy questions from political rivals over their plans for the major federal agencies.
Austin’s case presents additional problems, because he will need a waiver to serve in the top Pentagon civilian role. Austin retired from the Army in 2016. Current rules require a congressional waiver approved by both chambers to allow anyone with less than seven years separation from the military to be confirmed to the post.
Delays in confirming the agency heads should not significantly disrupt daily operations at either department. But officials have warned that long-term planning will be stalled without those leaders, especially if any delay drags on for a month or more.