State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks

The State Department and Senate Democrats are calling out Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine MORE (R-Texas) for holding up confirmation votes on key members of President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE’s national security team. 

They are particularly criticizing Cruz for his hold on Bonnie Jenkins, who Biden nominated as under secretary of State for arms control and international security affairs.

U.S. and Russian officials are expected to meet on July 28 for the first Strategic Stability Dialogue on nuclear nonproliferation talks, which was announced during Biden’s first face-to-face summit with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats find a tax Republicans can support Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections MORE next month.

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“[Jenkins] will be the senior official participating in those talks and it's critical that we have a Senate-confirmed leader... with that huge responsibility, in advance of these historic talks with Russia,” a State Department official said.

Jenkins is one of a dozen State nominees that the department says Cruz is blocking — leaving it empty of senior officials involved with critical national security issues.

The dozen officials blocked so far include another under secretary position in addition to Jenkins, five assistant secretaries and six ambassadors. 

“Senator Cruz has said he is blocking all of them,” a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Hill. 

“We're in regular contact with Senator Cruz to try to get him to negotiate a way out of this blanket hold and so far we have not made any progress with him,” the official continued.

Cruz has posted on Twitter that he is maintaining the holds on nominations until the Biden administration imposes congressionally-mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will allow Russia to deliver natural gas to Germany and Europe. 

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The Biden administration in May issued a sanctions waiver on one entity and three individuals related to the pipeline's construction, which is more than 90 percent complete, in what the White House said was an effort to maintain good diplomatic relations with Berlin and work to prevent the pipeline from becoming operational.

Cruz has said he will lift holds on nominees when the sanctions are imposed. 

“I'm leveraging holding the Biden administration's nominees to get the admin to impose sanctions mandated by Congress to stop Biden's multi-billion dollar gift to Putin, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” he tweeted last week.  

Getting around the holds would take precious floor time that Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Pelosi, Schumer vow climate action: 'It is an imperative' MORE (D-N.Y.) does not want to use as he separately seeks to move forward with Biden’s infrastructure agenda. Moving around the Cruz holds would be a days-long process with each nominee.

Schumer recently had to take days to confirm Uzra Zeya as under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights after he was unable to secure a speedier deal with the GOP.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezLobbying world This week: Congress starts summer sprint The Innovation and Competition Act is progressive policy MORE (D-N.J.) blasted that delay as a “travesty.” Twenty-four GOP senators ended up voting against her, including Cruz. Three others abstained from the vote.

A Senate Democratic aide said Republicans are intentionally targeting the president’s foreign policy team.

“National Security nominees writ large, at this point, are facing an uphill battle at the committee and at the floor level because of the position of minority in exploiting comity and slow-walking the process for the sake of obstructing the administration’s agenda,” the aide told The Hill. 

Jenkins, like Zeya, was reported favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but no confirmation vote is on the Senate's schedule.

Democrats' frustrations with Cruz boiled over during a business meeting on June 24, when Menendez rebuked him for obstructing confirmation votes. 

“Senator Cruz, this committee has had a long history of which you are blackening, by virtue of turning the committee’s business for a political purpose. We have had no history of that,” the chairman said. “You’ve held over every nominee, I’ve never seen that.” 

Jenkins is a recognized nuclear proliferation expert, a trained lawyer, academic, military veteran and founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), an organization dedicated to fostering national security professionals among minority women.

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If confirmed, she will be one of the most senior African American officials in the State Department – the only other being U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-GreenfieldLinda Thomas-GreenfieldUS delegation departs Haiti after reports of gunshots at ex-president's funeral Biden announces delegation to attend Haitian president's funeral State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks MORE.

Jenkins served in the Obama administration as the coordinator for threat reduction programs with the rank of ambassador, with the chief responsibility of reducing the threat and risk of weapons of mass destruction.

Laura Kennedy, a former ambassador to Turkmenistan and a veteran negotiator and expert on nuclear and biological weapons arms control, wrote in an email to The Hill that it “sends a poor signal to our partners that we would not have our Under Secretary in place” for the nuclear talks with Russia. 

Kennedy was one of 70 national security professionals that signed an open letter in June calling for Jenkins's swift confirmation. The two women worked together on arms control during the Obama administration and served on the Board of Directors of the Arms Control Association.

Kennedy stressed the importance of the U.S. having in place experienced negotiators for the Russian talks.

“[Russia’s] leads go into talks knowing they have the full backing of their governments – why should the U.S. have to play catch up?” Kennedy asked. 

Jordain Carney contributed to this report.