Republican Ron Johnson presides for the last time as Senate homeland security chair

WASHINGTON – After six years as chairman, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin presided for the last time Tuesday over a meeting of the Senate’s homeland security committee.

The panel voted 7-4 to advance the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be homeland security secretary.

Johnson voted against the nomination.

“This is obviously my last action as chairman. … It’s been a real honor and privilege to serve,” Johnson told the committee in his concluding remarks.

“I really hope we can move forward in the next Congress in what I consider the tradition of bipartisanship this committee has … generally exhibited. But we have enormous challenges facing this nation. The only way we’re going to solve these problems is working together.

“I agree with President Biden, we need to heal, we need to unify,” said Johnson, whose tenure became a lightning rod for Democrats, especially toward the end of the Trump presidency, with clashes over the Trump impeachment, investigations involving Russia and Ukraine, the handling of the pandemic, and the conduct of the 2020 election.

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Johnson has two years left in his Senate term. His chairmanship was due to end this month no matter which party controlled the Senate because the GOP imposes a six-year term limit on committee chairs.  

He was expected to chair an important investigative subcommittee had the GOP held the Senate.  

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But Republicans lost majority control as a result of two run-off elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. That left each party with 50 senators, and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie in favor of a Democratic majority.   

Johnson nevertheless remained chair of his committee until Tuesday because the Senate had yet to come to a new power-sharing arrangement between the parties. That agreement is now imminent, and Michigan Democrat Gary Peters will be the new homeland security chair. 

Johnson and three other Republicans on the committee voted against Biden’s homeland security nominee, Mayorkas, who served as deputy secretary of the department under President Barack Obama.

Mayorkas, whose family fled Castro’s Cuba in 1960, would be the first immigrant to head homeland security, which oversees most immigration issues and policies.

Johnson cited questions about the intervention of Mayorkas in some immigration visa cases when he headed Citizenship and Immigration Services, which drew criticism in a 2015 Inspector General’s report.

“I believe the president should get the cabinet members he or she wants, even if I disagree with them on certain policy issues,” said Johnson, but the senator said he had integrity concerns based on the visa issue.

Other Republicans oppose the nomination because of their objections to Biden’s immigration agenda.   

Two Republicans on the panel, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Utah’s Mitt Romney, said they had concerns about the same visa cases cited by Johnson, but said it was urgent to get a homeland security secretary in place. Portman said Democrats had the votes to approve Mayorkas regardless.

Democrats praised the nomination, with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper suggesting Mayorkas was the most qualified nominee ever for his position.

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who is not on the homeland security committee, met with Mayorkas Monday, calling him a great choice and “an experienced leader who should earn bipartisan support in the Senate from Democrats and Republicans.” 

It is unclear when the full Senate will vote on the nomination.