Week Ahead: Obama nominee faces senators

Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s former top attorney, will be in the congressional hot seat this Wednesday, seeking Senate confirmation to become the Obama administration’s next Homeland Security chief.  

President Obama nominated Johnson to replace Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary in October. 

Napolitano left the department in September to become the next president of the University of California system.  

But Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee could be a rocky one for Johnson, whose nomination has already drawn sharp criticism from lawmakers. 

Johnson’s ties to the White House, as well as his involvement in Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, has raised doubts about his qualifications to lead the DHS, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said shortly after White House announced the pick.  

“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of [border security], President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers,” Cornyn said of Johnson’s pending nomination. 

“We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars,” he added at the time.  

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), who called the agency the “most mismanaged” department in the federal government, argued those same problems will only worsen under Johnson’s leadership. 

Aside from his personal critics, Johnson’s nomination could also be hung up due to congressional Republicans’ furor over the 2012 terrorist attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday he will block confirmation of all of Obama’s nominations until U.S. personnel who witnessed the attack are made available to congressional investigators.

“I’m going to block every appointment in the United States Senate until the survivors are being made available to Congress,” Graham told Fox News in October.  

Under Senate rules, individual lawmakers can place holds on nominations and legislation, which require unanimous consent to proceed.

But, like a filibuster, holds can be defeated through a successful cloture vote, which requires at least 60 senators voting to proceed.

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi raid. The White House initially claimed the attack was prompted by an anti-American protest gone awry.  

Weeks later, administration officials admitted the attack was a planned and coordinated strike against the U.S. diplomatic outpost by militant groups in Libya.

Aside from the Johnson confirmation, senators are preparing for the long-awaited debate on the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill. 

 Senators expect the authorization bill could be brought to the floor toward the end of next week, with votes on amendments coming the following week.

 As one of the few remaining pieces of must-pass legislation — Congress has passed the bill for 51 straight years — it’s an attractive vehicle for lawmakers seeking changes on a number of hot-button defense and national security issues. 

Those issues include restrictions on transferring Guantánamo detainees, military sexual assault, the war in Afghanistan and Syria.

Off Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey will provide keynote speeches at the inaugural Defense One Summit in Washington on Thursday.  

During the address, Hagel and Dempsey are expected to make their case for cooperation with Congress, to help the department cope with the threat of massive budget cuts under sequestration. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

 In recent weeks, the Pentagon has taken a new tack in the sequestration fight, persuading lawmakers to work with the department to deal with the sequester rather than force Congress to come up with a viable alternative to the budget cuts.