The three senior officials are the first Cabinet-level confirmations in a spate of history-making nominees in Joe Biden's administration

By Virginia Chamlee
January 26, 2021 05:53 PM
Biden cabinet confirmations
From left: Janet Yellen, Avril Haines and Lloyd Austin
| Credit: Win McNamee/Getty; Joe Raedle/Getty; Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Several of President Joe Biden's Cabinet or Cabinet-level choices made history with their confirmations, days into his new administration.

Janet Yellen was confirmed as the first female treasury secretary on Monday, days after the Senate confirmations of Avril Haines, the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence, and retired four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin as the first Black secretary of Defense.

Monday's 84-to-15 vote marked the sixth time Yellen, 74, has been confirmed by the Senate. She was previously the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve.

Yellen takes over the Treasury Department at a precarious economic time to the nation, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic which has led to a spike in unemployment and business closures brought on by shutdowns to slow the spread.

She has previously expressed her hope that Biden "acts big" on the next round of coronavirus relief, arguing that the benefits to stimulating the economy outweighs the risks of the burden to the national debt.

Haines, 51, was formerly the first woman to hold the title of deputy director of the CIA and was the first of Biden's cabinet picks to be confirmed last week, in an 84-to-10 vote.

Haines, who will lead an agency that coordinates all of the 17 organizations that comprise the country's intelligence community, alluded to the Trump administration's fractured relationship with those same officials in her earlier confirmation hearing. She said then: "When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics, ever."

Austin, 67, was confirmed Friday in a speedy process that ended in a 93-to-two vote, despite some controversy surrounding his nomination given his prior military service.

To confirm Austin, who retired from active duty in 2016, Congress had to waive a law barring former military officers from becoming defense secretary within seven years of active duty — a rule meant to enforce civilian control over America's armed forces.

Former President Donald Trump also asked Congress to waive that same law for his first nominee for defense secretary: retired Marine Gen. James Mattis. 

In a December op-ed for The Atlantic, elaborating on his nomination of Austin for defense secretary, Biden wrote that the retired general was a "true and tested soldier" whose confirmation would be "another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure."

Austin, Haines and Yellen have all since been sworn into their roles.

Biden, 78, is history-making himself, as the oldest U.S. president. His vice president, Kamala Harris, is the first woman and first Black and Asian person to hold her office.

Other firsts in Biden's Cabinet, if confirmed, include Xavier Becerra, who would become the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services; Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first publicly LGBTQ Cabinet secretary; and Deb Haaland, the nominee for interior secretary, who would be the first Native American to lead the department.