WASHINGTON — After a contentious debate, a Senate panel on Wednesday approved President Obama’s pick for the No. 2 job at the Department of Homeland Security without a single Republican vote.
The party-line maneuver opens the way for the nominee, Alejandro Mayorkas, formerly the top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and now head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to be confirmed under new Senate rules that permit confirmation with a majority vote.
Republicans objected because the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has been scrutinizing Mayorkas over allegations that he intervened in a visa program for foreign investors.
The program, called the EB-5 Immigrant Investor program, was designed to create jobs in the U.S. by granting visas to foreigners who invest in American businesses. Investigators are looking into whether Mayorkas helped fast-track visas for politically connected businesses.
Mayorkas has denied the allegations.
Officials in the inspector general’s office have told senators they have not found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the probe, which began 15 months ago, said the committee chairman, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). After several delays, investigators told committee members the probe would be complete in February.
“We’ve waited long enough,” Carper said. “We cannot let rumor and innuendo to rule the day …. We need to treat this nominee fairly.”
But Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the top Republican on the committee, said it was “unprecedented” to vote on a nominee who was under investigation. He urged the panel’s Democrats to wait until the probe ends.
“I am extremely unhappy that it worked this way,” Coburn said during a tense exchange with Democrats. “I think we have done a disservice to this committee …. I hope it won’t have the unfortunate aspect of coming back to bite us.” In protest over how the nomination was handled, the Republicans on the committee voted “present,” instead of “no.”
If confirmed as deputy, Mayorkas would be responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the Department of Homeland Security which includes the U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration and other agencies. In October, Obama nominated former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson to be the new secretary of Homeland Security. The Senate is expected to vote on Johnson’s nomination this week.
Several top homeland security jobs are vacant or have been filled on a temporary basis. Carper said he wanted to move forward with Mayorkas’ nomination because the department needs leadership given the challenge of managing 22 disparate agencies and its record of low morale.
“We need to do something about it, and today we can,” he said.
Carper credited Mayorkas with reducing wait times for visas while in charge of the immigration service, and for his management of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That effort, which began last year, allows immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children to avoid deportation and apply for work permits. Carper said he had received letters in support of Mayorkas from former officials from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Mayorkas was born in Cuba and came to the United States with his family as a young child after Fidel Castro’s government took power. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Loyola Law School, he joined the federal government as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles 1989 and was chosen as U.S. attorney, the top prosecutor, in 1998.