The Senate approved Jeh Johnson as the fourth Homeland Security secretary, giving him the reins at a department that, more than a decade after its creation, is still unstable and trying to figure out its role in the massive federal bureaucracy.
The 78-16 vote gives President Obama a solid victory, filling a major Cabinet post that has remained empty since Janet A. Napolitano left in September.
“In Jeh, our dedicated homeland security professionals will have a strong leader with a deep understanding of the threats we face and a proven ability to work across agencies and complex organizations to keep America secure,” Mr. Obama said in a statement released soon after the vote. “I look forward to Jeh’s counsel and sound judgment for years to come.”
Moments after the Johnson confirmation, Democrats set up a vote on another contentious Homeland Security nomination in Alejandro Mayorkas, Mr. Obama’s selection to be deputy secretary of the department, even though Mr. Mayorkas is facing an internal department investigation.
Mr. Johnson brings the shortest list of qualifications to the job of any of the secretaries, having served only as a top lawyer in the Defense Department.
But he had the endorsement of all three of his predecessors, and Democrats said he will bring his seasoned national security expertise to a department in desperate need of solid leadership.
“I’ve been impressed by his forthrightness, his thoughtfulness, his core values and impeccable moral character, as well as his deep commitment to public service,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “Getting a Secretary of Homeland Security quickly confirmed is essential to help effectively run this Department and to protect the safety of our citizens.”
Some Republicans questioned putting Mr. Johnson at the head of a department that is regularly cited for poor management and where its component agencies — including disaster response, immigration enforcement, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service — often battle one another and other parts of the government.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, described Mr. Johnson as “a nice individual and capable,” but that as a career lawyer and fundraiser, he hasn’t had the experience needed to helm the department.
Mr. Sessions also said Mr. Johnson didn’t offer specific answers to questions that a group of Republican senators recently submitted to him, notably on the Obama administration’s immigration policies.
“One of the ramifications is with loyal Democratic senatorial support, Mr. Johnson doesn’t have to respond to my letter, doesn’t have to respond to the inquiries of Sen. [John] McCain,” Mr. Sessions said. “He has to respond to some staffer in the White House who says, ‘Don’t give them any information. Just give them some general junk.’”
Mr. Johnson’s confirmation gives the department a leader, but there are still more than a dozen vacancies in other senior positions, including deputy secretary.
The Senate also voted 53-38 Monday to begin debating the nomination of Mr. Mayorkas to be the department’s No. 2 figure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said confirming Mr. Mayorkas is a priority for Democrats and that he wants to hold the vote before the Senate leaves for Christmas.
The Homeland Security Committee signed off on Mr. Mayorkas’ nomination last week, though over the objections of Republicans who cited the fact that Mr. Mayorkas is under an internal investigation.
Mr. Reid cleared the way for Mr. Mayorkas and other contentious nominees to be powered through the Senate last month when he led the push for a rules change, making it possible to end filibusters of most nominees with just a majority vote, rather than the 60 that used to be needed for cloture.
Mr. Johnson steps into several thorny issues, including immigration enforcement.
Mr. Obama is under pressure to halt most deportations, just as he did last year for most young illegal immigrants.
“We hope Secretary Johnson will begin immediately to reverse course on the morally indefensible policies implemented by his predecessor,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, calling on Mr. Johnson to reject what he said was the department’s “quota” to deport 400,000 people each year — the figure officials say is what is budgeted.
Republicans, who oppose halting deportations, have tried to prod Mr. Johnson to say what he will do. In a letter last month, a handful of Republican senators sent him a letter asking him whether he would see through Ms. Napolitano’s nondeportation policies.
In response, Mr. Johnson said he was unable to respond to the specific queries question by question. In general, he said, he believes the department does have “prosecutorial discretion” powers to decide whom to target for deportations and can issue memos ordering employees how to follow through, though the department cannot refuse to enforce laws altogether.
The Homeland Security Department, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has chief responsibility for cybersecurity.
A recent inspector general report warned that coordination among the department’s 22 agencies and offices remains a major challenge. Ms. Napolitano left three months ago to become president of the University of California system. Without mentioning her by name, the report points to a culture of “ineffective management” and “cost inefficiencies” that continues to plague the agency.
The department’s biggest problem areas as outlined by the report include management of cybersecurity, transportation security, border security and infrastructure protection.
Mr. Carper did point out Monday that last week, the department received a clean financial audit for the first time.