Who is leading federal agencies until Senate confirms Biden’s nominees

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Washington — As President Joe Biden took the helm of the country at his inauguration on Wednesday, the Senate has yet to confirm any of his nominees to serve in his Cabinet, leaving federal agencies in the hands of acting officials until the upper chamber acts.

Senate committees began Tuesday to hold confirmation hearings for five of Mr. Biden’s picks just before his inauguration: Janet Yellen, nominee for Treasury secretary, Avril Haines, nominee for director of national intelligence, Lloyd Austin, nominee for Defense secretary, Tony Blinken, nominee for secretary of state, and Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee for Homeland Security secretary. But neither the respective committees with jurisdiction over each agency nor the full Senate have voted on his Cabinet picks. 

In addition, Austin needs a special waiver from the House and Senate, since federal law requires military officers to wait seven years before serving as defense secretary and he retired from the Army only four years ago. Senator Tom Cotton already said on Tuesday that he would vote against the waiver.

On the day of his inauguration in 2017, former President Trump took office with a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense and secretary of homeland security. In 2009, former President Barack Obama assumed the presidency with six of his nominees confirmed on the day of his inauguration. 


Some of the Cabinet positions are directly in the line of succession: The secretary of state is fourth in line for the presidency, treasury is fifth, defense secretary is sixth and attorney general is seventh.

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Here are the officials who will be serving as acting secretaries until Mr. Biden’s nominees are confirmed, according to White House officials:

  • Central Intelligence Agency, David Cohen
  • Department of Defense, David Norquist
  • Department of Energy, David Huizenga
  • Department of Health and Human Services, Norris Cochran
  • Department of Homeland Security, David Pekoske
  • Department of Justice, Monty Wilkinson
  • Department of Labor, Al Stewart
  • Department of State, Dan Smith
  • Department of Treasury, Andy Baukol
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Lora Shiao
  • Office of Management and Budget, Rob Fairweather
  • Small Business Administration, Tami Perriello
  • U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Rich Mills
  • Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Maria Pagan

The Senate will convene on Wednesday afternoon, but it is unclear whether there will be votes on any of Mr. Biden’s nominees. Senator Chuck Schumer, set to take over as Majority Leader, said “we’ll see” on Wednesday afternoon about holding confirmation hearings.

There is a hearing for Pete Buttigieg, nominee for Transportation secretary, scheduled for Thursday. Denis McDonough, the nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs, will receive a hearing next week.

Republican Senator Rob Portman said Wednesday afternoon that he believed there was “still uncertainty” about confirming the nominees this week. 

Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate, meaning that Mr. Biden’s nominees are likely to be confirmed. The balance of the Senate is 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie. On Wednesday afternoon, Harris is set to swear-in three new Democratic senators: Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Alex Padilla of California, who is filling her seat.

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Alan He contributed to this report.

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