GOP digs in on blocking Biden diplomatic picks
Republicans are putting up an intense series of roadblocks to confirmation for President Biden’s diplomatic nominees, issuing maximalist demands and raising objections to both policies and personalities.
More than 10 months into Biden’s administration, the Senate has confirmed only seven of his ambassadorial picks, while more than 50 nominees for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are awaiting votes, many of them held up by GOP objections.
Democrats have issued stark warnings against the Republican moves.
“Republicans who are holding up these nominees are endangering our national security, making it harder for our country to respond to threats at home and abroad,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday night, ahead of objections levied by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) against the quick confirmation of at least eight nominees.
Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and other GOP senators are exercising their ability to place a “hold” on a nominee or demand a vote on the record, moves that can force Democrats to drag out the confirmation process, sometimes for days, and eat up critical Senate floor time that the majority needs for legislative priorities.
On Wednesday, the Senate was able to confirm by a quick voice vote Biden’s ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) lifted his hold. A Republican Senate aide said Scott did so after speaking with Nides earlier in the day, adding the senator makes a point to speak to every high-level nominee before a confirmation vote.
But other key Biden picks face more daunting obstacles.
Hawley, for his part, has issued holds on at least five nominees and said he will only lift them if several of Biden’s top officials — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan — quit over their handling of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.
Hawley’s holds include the president’s nominee for ambassador to NATO, two Assistant Secretary positions, the nominee for coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization and the nominee for director general of the Foreign Service.
Likewise, Cruz is maintaining a blanket hold on nearly all State Department nominees over his opposition to the administration’s waiving of congressionally mandated sanctions on a Russian natural gas pipeline.
The logjam has prompted alarm from former senior government officials in the foreign service and national security sphere.
Last month, 350 of these professionals sent a letter to Senate leadership and the top lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging the quick confirmations of State Department and USAID nominees.
“The resulting vacancies have damaged U.S. national security and our ability to address international threats. We ask for your urgent attention to resolving this situation,” read the letter, organized by Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization.
“In addition to placing the United States at a strategic disadvantage, Washington has sent an unfortunate message of neglect and indifference.”
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) has also emerged as a roadblock for nominees to advance out of the Foreign Relations panel, a necessary step in bringing a nomination to the Senate floor.
Risch, the committee’s ranking member, has opposed hearings and committee votes for a handful of nominees because they are still being vetted by the GOP minority.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s not going to be a situation where we’re going to roll over on ones that we’re not done with,” Risch said during a committee business meeting on Wednesday.
This includes Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann, who is being scrutinized by Republicans over her contacts with China as president of the University of Pennsylvania. GOP lawmakers have raised concerns over whether the university accepted unreported and anonymous donations that came from Beijing, a charge that the university reportedly refutes.
“This is a complex matter. We’re looking at it and we will get to a conclusion on that,” Risch said during the meeting.
Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has said he is committed to consensus with the ranking member in scheduling hearings to preserve comity, but he urged Risch to allow hearings to go forward, in particular for Gutmann and other top posts — including the nominee for assistant administrator for the Middle East at USAID, the nominee for under secretary of State for management and two assistant secretary positions.
“They have done everything they can do to be poised at least for a hearing and, or a committee vote. We should give them that opportunity and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
What’s more, Risch’s refusal to hold a hearing for Biden’s nominee for ambassador to monitor and combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, has garnered rare pushback from the Anti-Defamation League and two prominent Jewish organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union.
Risch has said the minority has concerns over tweets that Lipstadt has written, “particularly about members of the committee,” and is looking into them.
Further raising the stakes in the 50-50 Senate are nominees that have received pushback from Democrats, such as Biden’s pick for ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel.
Progressives are lobbying against Emanuel’s confirmation over his handling, as mayor of Chicago, of the 2014 investigation into the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was unarmed and walking away from officers when he was fatally shot.
Emanuel’s nomination advanced out of the Foreign Relations Committee by voice vote on Wednesday, but at least two Democratic senators recorded their opposition.
One area where Republicans and Democrats have both expressed support is with Biden’s nominee for ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns.
Both Cruz and Hawley have said they would not block Burns’s confirmation vote from moving forward, and he advanced out of Foreign Relations on Wednesday, setting him up for a Senate floor vote.
China is viewed by both Republicans and Democrats as the greatest geo-strategic threat facing the United States.
Democrats, seeking to appeal to their Republican colleagues, argued the dangers of deadlock in advancing the president’s nominees as a propaganda win for China.
“China’s making a pitch that authoritarianism is the best alternative because democracy doesn’t work because they’re looking at our Congress,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a Foreign Relations member, said during the Wednesday business meeting.
“I don’t know how we fix this, but what’s happening now is not working and it’s not working just for the Senate, but it’s not working for the country.”
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