Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State

Republican and Democratic senators are threatening to hold up confirmation of officials at the State and Defense departments in response to President Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Republicans have been more vociferous in their complaints than Democrats, but members of both parties have said they’re prepared to make life difficult for the administration’s nominees.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, angered that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not appear for a hearing on Afghanistan this week, threatened to subpoena Austin and suggested he could impede Pentagon nominees.

“His decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees,” Menendez said Tuesday.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he would slow walk Pentagon and State Department nominees unless Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan resign.

While the Senate has done away with the filibuster for presidential nominations, Biden often has few votes to spare to win confirmation battles given a Senate equally divided between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats.

In addition, a single senator can drag out the floor process for winning confirmation for days, something the Senate can’t afford as it deals with other business for Biden.

As a result, threats by individual senators to impose a “hold” on a nominee carries heavy weight and can end up submarining a nominee’s confirmation.

Hawley is specifically threatening holds for civilian positions at the Pentagon, likely putting in jeopardy the nominee for assistant secretary of the Army.

Biden is dealing with a number of empty positions already.

A total of 12 Department of Defense nominees are awaiting action in the Senate, according to tracking by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for government effectiveness. 

This includes the nominee for under secretary for the Army, general counsel of the Navy, two deputy under secretaries and eight assistant secretaries. 

The backlog of nominees for the State Department is significantly worse, with an estimated 80 nominees awaiting some type of action in the Senate.

About 25 of those nominees are under a blanket hold by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). His opposition isn’t over Afghanistan; he’s demanding the administration impose sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline. 

Blinken during a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday pleaded with the panel to speed up confirmations, particularly the more than two dozen nominees who have passed out of the committee with bipartisan support but are stalled for a floor vote because of Cruz. 

“For our national security, I respectfully urge the Senate and this committee to move as swiftly as possible to consider and confirm all pending nominees and to address what is a significant disruption in our national security policymaking,” the secretary said. 

Administration officials, some Democrats and outside experts say the political battles over nominations can end up hurting the nation by hampering diplomacy and security.

“Every single day that we don’t have ambassadors, every single day that we don’t have assistant secretaries, is a day that America is not representing its interests around the world,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said during a hearing on Wednesday. 

Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project, compared the Senate holds on nominees to a “hostage scenario.”

“You don’t make government better by breaking it. If Senator Hawley wants to see a better functioning Department of State, he should move to confirm the obvious talent before him. Tying the Department’s hands by refusing to lift holds on these nominees expands the very dysfunction he says he wants to eliminate,” she wrote in an email to The Hill.

“Fewer than one third of Biden’s nominees have been confirmed by the Senate, and most holds were put in place well before the challenges of the Afghanistan withdrawal. This is not accountability, it’s a hostage scenario for the president’s agenda and a self-inflicted national security risk.”

The Partnership for Public Service estimates that there are 47 nominees critical to national security that are awaiting action in the Senate. 

“What’s at stake, fundamentally, is our national security,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the group.

He said a Partnership analysis found that Biden has only 26 percent of his top national security officials who require Senate-confirmation in place, contrasting that with the 57 percent then-President George W. Bush had in place ahead of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 

“As bad as it was in the lead up to 9/11, it’s a lot worse today and we should all be, not only concerned about that, but doing something about it,” Stier said. 

Anthony Clark Arend, professor and chair of Georgetown University’s Department of Government, said there is a major drawback to delaying confirmations.

“The holds that are being placed  or being threatened  on President Biden’s nominees for ambassadorial positions and other senior administrative posts are dangerous to the national security of the country,” Arend wrote in an email to The Hill. 

“Moreover, the message it sends to the rest of the world  friends and adversaries alike  is that we are not fully staffed, we are not really ready to do business.”

The Biden administration lags behind the past three administrations in the pace of confirmations, according to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, nonresident senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution. 

This is largely due to the slow pace of the confirmation process, but is also hampered by the president’s delay in announcing nominations and Cruz’s blanket hold on nominees at the State Department.

“The overall pace of confirmations is so slow that every aspect of government is functioning without key leadership,” Tenpas said.

Tags Afghanistan Antony Blinken Biden agenda Biden nominees Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Department of Defense Department of State Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Josh Hawley Lloyd Austin Pentagon Pentagon senators State Department Ted Cruz

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