Members of incoming US president Joe Biden’s cabinet moved a step closer to confirmation of their posts on Tuesday as they appeared before key Senate committees.
Janet Yellen, Mr Biden's pick for treasury secretary, and Antony Blinken, his choice for secretary of state, were among those who were questioned by lawmakers ahead of votes on their nomination.
Mr Biden's nominee to lead the intelligence services, Avril Haines, and his pick for the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, were also questioned by senators.
In a last minute development, Republican senator Josh Hawley opposed Mr Mayorkas's nomination, blocking a process that would have allowed for his appointment to be fast-tracked, as Mr Biden prepares to assume office.
Typically, at least some cabinet members are confirmed before a new president is inaugurated. But Democrats fear the process could be delayed further, given that the Senate is due to begin an impeachment trial of outgoing president Donald Trump as early as next week.
Addressing members of the Senate finance committee on the eve of Mr Biden's inauguration, Ms Yellen urged Congress to "act big" when it comes to the financial response to the coronavirus crisis. Touting the benefits of Mr Biden's proposed $1.9 trillion (€1.6 trillion) relief package to tackle the economic costs of the pandemic, Ms Yellen said "with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big".
In a joint letter, all living former treasury secretaries urged the Senate to confirm Ms Yellen, a former chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, quickly.
In his opening statement, Mr Blinken signalled that the United States would take a more multilateral approach to international relations under the new presidency. "American leadership still matters," he said. "The reality is the world simply does not organise itself. When we're not engaged ... one of two things is likely to happen: either some other country tries to take our place ... or maybe just as bad, no one does."
Further details also emerged about the forthcoming impeachment trial, which will take place after Mr Biden assumes office.
It is now expected that House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi may send the article of impeachment against Mr Trump to the Senate next week, paving the way for a trial. Mr Trump became the first US president in history to be impeached twice, when the House voted to impeach him last week over his perceived role in inciting the January 6th Capitol Hill riot.
In his strongest comments yet on the events, outgoing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell explicitly accused Mr Trump of provoking the mob that descended on the Capitol. “The mob was fed lies,” he said, referring to Mr Trump’s false claim that he won November’s presidential election.
“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,” he said.
Mr McConnell has not yet indicated how he will vote in the forthcoming impeachment trial. Seventeen Republicans will need to join the chamber’s 50 Democrats in upholding the impeachment charges if Mr Trump is to be convicted. They can then vote to bar him from ever holding office again.
As the Senate negotiates behind the scenes about how the impeachment trial will proceed, Mr Biden is expected to sign several executive orders on his very first day in office, while incoming press secretary Jen Psaki is due to hold the first White House press briefing of the Biden presidency, hours after the new president is inaugurated.
Mr Trump posted a farewell address on YouTube on Tuesday. "I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning," he said ahead of his departure to Florida on Wednesday.
“We did what we came here to do – and so much more. Above all, we have reasserted the sacred idea that in America, the government answers to the people. We restored the idea that in America, no one is forgotten – because everyone matters and everyone has a voice.”