Democrats threaten to play hardball over Cruz’s blockade

Democrats are threatening hardball tactics as they try to break a blockade by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that has left dozens of President Biden’s State Department nominees in limbo. 

Democrats and the conservative firebrand are struggling to make progress toward an agreement that would trade votes on some of Biden’s ambassador nominees for a vote on sanctions related to the construction of the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a longstanding goal for Cruz, who has ensnared nominations across the State Department, the Treasury Department and the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID).

Absent a deal, Democrats are warning that they are willing to keep the Senate in Washington, D.C., heading into Christmas. Senators had been scheduled to leave town for the year on Friday, and the House left early Wednesday morning until January. 

“Democrats are working to clear as much of the backlog as possible by consent. If we cannot make much progress, we may need to stay and hold votes on nominees this weekend and next week until we do,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Schumer’s No. 2, added that the ambassador nominations were something “we want to do before we leave for Christmas.” 

Asked about the potential of keeping the Senate in town next week to confirm nominations, Durbin added: “I hope we don’t have to.” 

Cruz has been holding up Biden’s State Department nominees for months over a push to get a vote on, or implementation of, Nord Stream 2 pipeline sanctions. 

The move has sparked frustration within the administration, among congressional Democrats and even with some Republicans, who have warned that leaving the ambassador spots open undermines the ability for the administration to defend U.S. interests on the world stage. 

Though Cruz has allowed some picks to be quickly confirmed — including former colleagues Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who were confirmed as the U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and New Zealand, respectively — dozens of State Department nominees are languishing on the Senate calendar. 

More than 50 ambassador nominees are available for a vote in the Senate. But unless Cruz drops his objection, Democrats would need to eat up days of floor time in order to get to a vote on a nomination. 

Cruz isn’t the only GOP senator who has placed a hold on nominees. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) warned that he would block State and Pentagon nominees, but he noted on Wednesday that he doesn’t have any holds placed on Biden’s ambassador picks. 

The impact of the holds played out in real time on Wednesday when Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has been trying to work out a deal on ambassador nominations, asked to get a handful of ambassador nominations confirmed, including former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) as ambassador to Japan. Cruz objected, leaving them in limbo. 

Schumer and Cruz have swapped offers but so far don’t seem to be on the precipice of a deal that would set up quick nomination votes and potentially pave the way for the Senate to leave town for the year.

With Biden’s Build Back Better legislation in limbo, and Democrats searching for but not yet having a path forward on voting rights and changing the Senate’s rules, the Senate doesn’t have another item on its to-do list besides nominations. 

Schumer, echoing a demand by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), warned that Cruz had to drop all of his holds on nominees from the State Department, Treasury Department and USAID in order to come to an agreement. 

“We have been working over the past day to secure a lift on many of these holds. I want to echo what Sen. Menendez has made clear: If the senator from Texas offers a proposal that does not include lifting all State, Treasury and USAID nominees holds, we cannot come to an agreement,” Schumer said.

Senators on both sides of the aisle warned that the talks have so far yielded little progress. 

Cruz dismissed the push for him to drop all of his holds, warning that unless Democrats soften their position, they’ll have to send all of Biden’s ambassador nominees back to the White House to be renominated next year. 

“I have a reasonable and good faith offer on the table to lift a number of holds,” Cruz said. “I have demonstrated that I am more than willing to negotiate on good faith on this. .,. Schumer has the ability to confirm a substantial chunk of nominees. He could do so today, if he simply accepted the deal.”  

Durbin said that Cruz wanted to pick the nominees that would be accepted as part of a deal. 

“His condition was he got to pick the nominees. We wouldn’t accept that,” Durbin said. 

GOP senators argued that Cruz was being flexible but acknowledged that there is division about both who gets confirmed and how many members get confirmed. 

Cruz and Schumer initially agreed to allow for a vote on Nord Stream 2 sanctions as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in exchange for Cruz lifting holds on seven nominees. Cruz has now offered to lift holds on 16 nominees, according to GOP senators, in exchange for a vote. 

“It seems like he’s very flexible on the list. He gets a vote on Nord Stream 2. I don’t know why this is as hard as it is,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.  

Tags Bob Menendez Chris Coons Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Jeff Flake Joe Biden John Thune Josh Hawley Robert Menendez Senate confirmations Ted Cruz Tom Udall

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