By Jeremy Herb
Democrats say President Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, is not facing any significant curveballs to his confirmation.
But Republicans angry with the Obama administration’s Homeland Security policies on immigration, border security and the Transportation Security Agency do not plan to make things easy for Johnson, the Pentagon’s former general counsel.
Many of the policy fights are over issues on which Johnson does not have a lengthy record, prompting GOP concerns that he would merely rubber-stamp the White House’s policies.
“If Mr. Johnson is going to double down on those policies, and on the belief that DHS can bypass Congress, that’s obviously going to be a big problem,” a Senate GOP aide said Tuesday.
Napolitano was a frequent target for conservative critics of the Obama administration and was challenged on a multitude of issues.
She received the nickname “Big Sis” after the TSA implemented more invasive airport screening procedures.
Conservatives railed against the department after the Obama administration decided last year to suspend the deportation of certain immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
Johnson was nominated last month for the Homeland Security position after a four-year stint as the Pentagon’s top lawyer, where he played major roles in developing the administration’s counterterrorism policies and repealing the ban on gay service members serving openly in the military.
Since his nomination, Republicans have criticized Johnson for inexperience on issues like border security, as well as for his role in Obama’s first presidential campaign.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called Johnson a “political hack” on Tuesday.
“I don’t want a political hack in that position. I want someone to lead on national security issues,” McCaul said on “Fox and Friends.” He said Johnson’s nomination was a sign the administration is not taking homeland security seriously.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said in a statement last month that he had “grave concerns” about Johnson.
“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our Southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers,” Cornyn said.
And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that Obama had picked “a loyalist and fundraiser” to lead the department.
“This is deeply concerning,” he said. “This huge department must have a proven manager with strong, relevant law enforcement experience, recognized independence and integrity, who can restore this department to its full capability.”
Sessions said that Johnson must demonstrate a commitment to enforcing immigration laws that were ignored at the DHS under Napolitano.
Democrats brushed aside the GOP criticism, saying that Johnson is an extremely qualified nominee.
A White House official said the administration was confident Johnson would receive “broad bipartisan support in the Senate.”
A Senate Democratic aide said the process so far had been straightforward with no curveballs, and that any potential landmines surrounding the nomination are unrelated to Johnson.
“Johnson’s nomination garnered support from a broad coalition — including law enforcement groups, national security experts, Democrats and Republicans — and we urge the Senate to take swift action and confirm him right away,” White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne said Tuesday.
Ahead of his confirmation hearing Wednesday, the White House released a letter signed by former Homeland Security Secretaries Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Napolitano endorsing Johnson.
One of the potential roadblocks comes from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has expressed support for Johnson personally but is threatening to block all nominations because of his dispute with the administration over last year’s terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham has said he would block Johnson and Federal Reserve nominee Janet Yellen unless the Obama administration allows Congress to speak with U.S. personnel who were in Benghazi during the September 2012 attack.
“I’m going to vote for him eventually, because he’s a really well-qualified guy,” Graham said at a press conference last month.
“But I don’t know what to do other than this. ... It’s the only leverage we have.”
Johnson could also receive critical questions on a front he knows quite well. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is on the Homeland Security Committee, is a vocal critic of the administration’s drone policies, which Johnson helped craft.