Senators said Wednesday they are impressed with President Obama’s choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, but that Jeh C. Johnson’s nomination will suffer delays and opposition until he is more forthcoming in answering key questions.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, went the furthest, saying he cannot vote for Mr. Johnson until the nominee pledges to tell Congress exactly what it will take to secure the border with Mexico — an assurance Mr. Johnson was reluctant to give during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that he expects Mr. Johnson to earn enough support to be confirmed as the fourth secretary of Homeland Security, but that his application will be held up until he provides real answers to about two dozen questions that Mr. Coburn said were effectively ignored in an official questionnaire.
“Until those are corrected, and we actually have Mr. Johnson’s response, I will not consider that his questionnaire has been completed,” the Oklahoma lawmaker said.
The Department of Homeland Security is operating without several leaders whose positions require confirmation, including the secretary, deputy secretary and chiefs of two of the immigration services.
Mr. Johnson has been a federal prosecutor and lawyer in private practice, but his chief experience was serving as the top lawyer in the Defense Department during Mr. Obama’s first term.
Late Tuesday, the White House released a letter signed by all three previous Homeland Security secretaries endorsing Mr. Johnson as a worthy successor.
“Leading a department the size and scope of DHS is a unique challenge. Mr. Johnson’s experience and ability makes him an eminently qualified nominee,” wrote former secretaries Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet A. Napolitano.
In many ways, though, Mr. Johnson’s nomination is suffering because of the legacy left by those secretaries.
Senators repeatedly criticized the sprawling department for not being more responsive to requests for information, particularly when it comes to the thorny issue of immigration.
Mr. Coburn said Ms. Napolitano, the most recent secretary, failed to turn over border security plans. Mr. McCain added that while he was trying to write an immigration bill earlier this year, the department wouldn’t tell him what resources were needed to get to a point where they were stopping 90 percent of illegal border crossings.
Mr. Coburn demanded Mr. Johnson agree to turn over that information when confirmed, but Mr. Johnson wouldn’t give an absolute commitment. He only said he was inclined to be responsive and is worried there might be reasons he can’t provide that information.
“I think I need to talk to people at DHS to better understand the issue,” he said.
Mr. McCain, whose border state takes much of the brunt of illegal immigration, said that wasn’t good enough.
“I will not support your nomination until I get a ‘yes’ answer,” he said.