GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions
Women are set to make unprecedented gains in leadership positions on President Biden’s foreign policy and national security teams, but their confirmations for key appointments are being held up in the Senate.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) have placed holds on a number of Biden’s nominees. They say the holds are to demonstrate their objections to Biden’s policies, not specific people, but Democrats and some Republicans are growing frustrated over the slow pace of confirmations — and particularly what it means for women awaiting a vote.
The delays are particularly aggravating to advocates who have worked behind the scenes to help qualified women overcome barriers, both overt and unconscious, to achieve gender parity.
The goal of equal representation doesn’t just benefit women, advocates say. Research shows that women’s participation in conflict resolution yields more durable solutions and contributes to diversity of thought.
Biden has so far appointed and nominated a record-breaking number of women for senior roles and positions requiring Senate confirmation.
“Gender parity, writ large, as well as within the national security space has been really notable in the Biden administration,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president of Research and Evaluation with the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for government effectiveness.
The president has so far nominated at least 207 women and 212 men out of 800 Senate-confirmed positions that the Partnership is tracking, focusing on a broad swath of full-time, civilian positions in the executive branch. There are an estimated 1,200 Senate-confirmed appointments in total.
As of Nov. 17, 50 percent of Biden’s nominees the Senate has confirmed have been women. That’s compared to 23 percent in the same time frame under the Trump administration and 29 percent in the Obama administration, according to data compiled by Kathryn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
Lindsay Rodman, executive director of The Leadership Council For Women In National Security (LCWINS), called the number of women who have been nominated so far “historic” and “a leap as compared to the natural progression that we were seeing.”
Yet one area where advocates fear Biden is lagging behind is in nominating women for ambassadorships, where fewer than 40 percent of the nominees so far have been women.
Rodman said the president is unlikely to get close to 50 percent even if women filled the remaining open positions.
“The numbers are really, not great,” she said.
LCWINS was informally organized in 2019 to raise awareness and urge presidential candidates — including Biden — to pledge to have at least 50 percent of their national security Senate-confirmed positions be women.
More formally, the organization put together a database of 927 qualified women for such positions and provided their names to the Biden team following the president’s election.
Rodman said the organization knows of 136 women from its database who have joined the administration, but that number could be higher because it doesn’t have insight into all appointments.
LCWINS is withholding publication of names associated with its organization out of respect for privacy, but Rodman said this also speaks to the unconscious barriers that keep women from being considered for such roles or advocating for themselves.
“Initially, as we were beta testing this idea of a database, there was a sense from a lot of women that they would not be comfortable being in this kind of advocacy effort unless we could promise them that their name would not leak as a part of this — because soliciting a political appointment has, kind of a weird veneer to it for a lot of people,” Rodman said. “Even though that’s exactly what you have to do.”
Another barrier is perceived experience, Rodman said, and that the Obama administration had fewer women, and in particular women of color. This makes it harder to advocate for a newcomer in the Biden administration, which has filled itself with Obama-era alumni.
“I do think that they’re genuine in their interest in showing a really diverse leadership,” Rodman said about the administration’s efforts.
Lack of prior government experience, as well as perceived disqualifiers like lobbying, connections to the defense industry, and even criticism of social media activity, has narrowed the field of potential candidates.
In March, Neera Tanden withdrew herself as Biden’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget amid opposition from Democratic and Republican senators largely for controversial tweets.
Likewise, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have delayed a hearing for Biden’s nominee for Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, pointing to tweets they say are problematic.
Partisan opposition to Biden’s nominees in general have delayed an already-cumbersome and drawn out bureaucratic process.
The absence of top leadership is most acutely felt in the State Department, where at least 56 nominees are awaiting confirmation. Many of the nominees are subject to holds — largely implemented by Cruz and Hawley — that prevent their confirmations from taking place quickly.
“A small group of my Republican colleagues have allowed partisan brinkmanship to pervade a critical aspect of our national security,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said on the Senate floor last week, following the quick confirmation of Biden’s ambassador to NATO after Hawley lifted his hold on her nomination.
Shaheen, the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had earlier raised in a panel meeting that many of the State Department nominees whose confirmations are being delayed by Republicans are women.
At least 21 women for top positions — including 16 ambassadors, four assistant secretary positions and the nominee for Director General of the Foreign Service — are having their confirmations stalled by holds.
“I don’t know if that’s intentional,” Shaheen told The Hill, when asked about how women are getting caught up in the holds, but called it “particularly frustrating.”
For months Cruz has exercised holds on dozens of State Department nominees over his opposition to the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline.
He called it a “ludicrous” argument when asked if he was concerned that he was standing in the way of improving gender parity in government.
“If we want to play the silly game of calling everything a gender or racial bloc, then I’m acting to defend the women of Europe and the women of America from Russian military aggression – it’s an absurd argument but so is the argument you asked me about.”
Hawley has holds on at least four of the president’s nominees, who happen to be all women. In response to a request for comment by The Hill his office reiterated he would maintain those holds “until there is some accountability from the administration for their disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
He has called for the resignation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in exchange for lifting the holds, although he lifted his hold on Biden’s nominee for NATO, Julianne Smith, last week after securing a commitment that she would push for the alliance to increase its defense spending.
Democrats are irate and even Republican colleagues are frustrated over the delay in confirmations.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told The Hill he doesn’t think the holds are related to gender but called for confirmations to proceed.
“I believe it’s important for us to have those who represent our country in their positions as soon as possible,” he said.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the amount of holds being instituted are a reflection of deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats.
“Over the years, holds have been used more and more. I think, as the polarization up here has grown, so has the use of the holds.”
Susan Sloan, author of “A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World”, raised the question over whether a lack of gender parity in the Senate — 24 women compared to 76 men — is contributing to partisan gridlock.
Sloan points to interviews she conducted with dozens of women who served as ambassadors, foreign ministers and military leaders, and research underscoring women contributing unique negotiating skills, emotional intelligence and artful listening to overcome differences and implement solutions.
“Knowing that women reach across party lines and are able to negotiate on multiple sides to find a solution, the issue holding up this process is who is holding the reins,” she said.