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Controversial nomination at Department of Homeland Security goes to Senate floor

President Obama’s nominee for the No. 2 spot at the Department of Homeland Security advanced to the full Senate for consideration after winning a vote Wednesday from a deeply divided Senate panel.

The Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee made a party-line decision after a Republican senator unsuccessfully sought a delay, in part by revealing previously undisclosed official findings of problems with a visa program the nominee administers.

“These reviews raise major concerns about whether this program is facilitating crime and creating threats to national security,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) in seeking to delay the consideration of Alejandro Mayorkas to be deputy secretary of the department.

Coburn stressed that he had drawn no conclusions about Mayorkas, but said that some of the reports raise “strong questions and concerns about his fitness for this office.”

While Democrats lauded the nominee’s efforts to improve security and fraud protection, all Republican members of the panel voted “present” in protest.

The nomination will now go to the full Senate, where confirmation is assured under new rules that allow presidential nominees to be approved by a simple majority vote.

Republicans on the homeland security panel objected to the vote because of an ongoing inquiry into Mayorkas’s administration of the EB-5 visa program, which grants entry to foreign nationals willing to invest a minimum of $500,000 to create U.S. jobs. The inquiry by the DHS inspector general began after unnamed whistleblowers alleged that Mayorkas had shown favoritism in administering the program. Mayorkas has denied the allegation. A final report on the matter has been complicated by several factors, including an unrelated ethics inquiry facing the inspector general.

Coburn said Wednesday that it is “virtually unprecedented” for the Senate to proceed with the confirmation of a nominee under official investigation. Democrats, led by committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), said the inquiry has gone on long enough and has not found evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Mayorkas or others in the department. In the meantime, Carper said, Mayorkas has received strong endorsements from a bipartisan group of former homeland security officials.

Coburn said he obtained internal, non-public reviews showing ongoing problems in the EB-5 program that Mayorkas administers as part of his job directing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division of DHS.

The Oklahoma lawmaker briefly detailed conclusions of several recent reports on the program, including a draft review by the national security staff at the White House in 2012. That review, Coburn said, noted a high “risk that EB-5 program participants may attempt to use the program as a tool or channel for money laundering, tax evasion or other illicit financial activity.” He then cited a second draft study completed this year by the department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division recommending that the regional centers that are a key part of the program be ended because they can “be exploited by terrorists and criminals.”

Despite such concerns, the EB-5 program, including the regional centers, expanded during the years that Mayorkas has been in charge.

Coburn said he was unable to obtain further information about the reported problems despite several requests to the administration.

Carper did not respond to Coburn’s specific claims during the hearing. But the committee chairman noted that Mayorkas had been “proactively addressing national security and fraud concerns” about the EB-5 program since he assumed his job in 2009. Mayorkas, he said, had reached out to Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI and the Treasury Department to seek help policing the program.

“That is exactly the kind of leadership we need at DHS,” Carper said.

Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.

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