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'Under a cloud': Dems advance DHS pick despite claims of political favors

 

Democratic senators appeared to gloss over new allegations -- as well as an internal investigation -- against a Homeland Security nominee, voting Wednesday to advance his nomination over the stiff objections of Republicans. 

Alejandro Mayorkas, tapped for the No. 2 position at the Department of Homeland Security, and others are facing an inspector general probe over allegations they helped a company with ties to Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe secure visas for investors. Adding to the controversy, The Washington Times reported overnight that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached out to Mayorkas to help speed along visas for foreign investors of a politically connected casino hotel in Las Vegas. 

But the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday voted 9-0 to advance his nomination to the full Senate -- with all Republicans sitting out and voting "present." 

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., top Republican on the Senate panel, called the vote "virtually without precedent." He had urged lawmakers to wait until "all the facts" are available. 

"If we confirm Mr. Mayorkas under a cloud, we haven't helped him, we haven't helped the Department of Homeland Security," he said. 

"I'm deeply disappointed," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said after the vote. 

But Democrats defended the nominee, suggesting his name was being dragged through the mud. 

"It is discouraging to see someone with such an extraordinary record of service being held up for no apparent reason," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said. 

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee chairman, called him an "exceptional candidate" and the controversy surrounding him "unfair." 

The nominee currently heads U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In that role, he has come under criticism for his handling of the EB-5 program, which allows foreigners investing at least a half-million dollars in a U.S. project to seek a special visa. 

The Times report, citing internal government documents, claimed the Obama administration expedited visa applications for about two dozen foreign investors for a Las Vegas casino hotel after pressure from Reid and his staff. 

Reid, who represents Nevada, reportedly reached out to Mayorkas, setting in motion a process that ultimately granted expedited status to the investor visas for the SLS Hotel, formerly known as the Sahara Casino. 

One email, cited by the Times, showed a USCIS official relaying how Reid's intervention created a heated situation in the agency. 

"This one is going to be a major headache for us all because Sen. Reid's office/staff is pushing hard and I just had a long yelling match on the phone," the official wrote in a December 2012 email. 

Reid's office, without denying the report, defended his actions. "Senator Reid has supported and will continue to support the SLS Las Vegas project in any way he can," the statement said. "Sen. Reid believes it is his job to do all he can to promote economic growth and development in the state, and he makes no apologies for helping to bring jobs to Nevada." 

The Times said the decision to overturn a prior, normally non-appealable visa decision ultimately benefited several companies whose executives have been heavy Democratic donors. 

Coburn, citing the ongoing IG investigation into the program itself, noted the accusations are merely "allegations," but said they could raise questions about Mayorkas' "fitness for public service."