confirmation hearings begin one day before inauguration

<span>Photograph: Joshua Roberts/EPA</span>
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/EPA

Confirmation hearings for Joe Biden’s cabinet nominees kicked off on Tuesday, one day ahead of the inauguration and as the next step in Donald Trump’s second impeachment loomed.

Related: Biden to block Trump’s proposal to lift US travel restrictions on Europe

Senators on the relevant committees began hearings to confirm Janet Yellen (treasury secretary), Avril Haines (director of national intelligence), Alejandro Mayorkas (homeland security secretary) and Antony Blinken (secretary of state). The hearings were merely a first wave of confirmations Congress must process as the new president takes office.

Biden will take the oath of office on Wednesday, cementing a massive shift in the American political universe. Once Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice-president – the first Black woman in the role using a Bible once owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first Black supreme court justice, as well as one from a close family friend – Democrats will narrowly control both chambers of Congress.

As well as holding confirmation hearings, the Senate must hold a second trial for Trump, even after he has left office. Democrats hope Republican sentiment has shifted away from the outgoing president in response to the riot he encouraged at the Capitol. There are signs that might be the case.

On Tuesday, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”

John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership, told ABC News: “It sounds like we are going to have a trial to examine that and like all senators I’ll fulfill my constitutional duty and listen intently to the evidence, and we will come to the conclusion.”

Looking to make good on his promise to lower the political temperature of the country, Biden invited Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress to a prayer session before he takes office, the mere fact of the invitation a tonal shift from how Trump interacted with congressional leaders through his four years in office. Earlier in the day, Biden participated in a sendoff from his home state, Delaware, ahead of his move to Washington. A Covid memorial service was due to take place in the capital in the evening.

Biden will need to retain good relations with both parties if he wants any of his policy agenda to become law and cabinet confirmations to go smoothly. WThe Senate will be split 50-50. In any tie, Harris, as vice-president, will hold the deciding vote. In the House, the Democratic majority shrank in the last election but Nancy Pelosi still wields control as speaker.

When Biden is sworn in, he will be lagging behind his most recent predecessors on confirmation hearings held, according to data compiled by Axios. Only five Biden nominees will have had hearings by the end of Tuesday, seven fewer than Trump had by inauguration day, six fewer than Barack Obama (whom Biden served as vice-president), seven fewer than George W Bush and nine fewer than Bill Clinton.

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, noted that Democrats must deal with an unusually heavy load.

“All of us want to put this awful chapter in our nation’s history behind us, but healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability, not sweeping such a severe charge, such awful actions under the rug,” Schumer said.

“So let me be clear. There will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate. There will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. If the president is convicted, there will be a vote barring him [from running for office] again.”

Related: Joe Biden will launch presidency with appeal for unity – but whose unity?

Privately, there is a worry among Democrats that impeachment hearings held simultaneously with confirmations will delay cabinet confirmations and progress on legislation. Away from Congress, Biden has said he will reverse key Trump policies by executive order, achieving among other objectives re-entry to the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal.

Democrats also worry that impeachment could further fuel the sense of heated national division the new president wants to end.

“In 2017, the Senate confirmed President Trump’s secretary of defense and his secretary of homeland security on inauguration day,” Schumer said, adding: “Biden should have the same officials in place on his inauguration day at the very least.

“That is the expectation and tradition for any administration, especially in the midst of a homeland security crisis … the way the Senate works, it will take cooperation from our Republican colleagues to swiftly confirm these highly qualified national security officials. But make no mistake, the Senate will move quickly to confirm Biden’s cabinet.”

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