Dems lunge into confirmation fight

Dems lunge into confirmation fight
© Greg Nash

Democrats and the White House are hammering Senate Republicans for failing to act on a nominee who is charged with snipping the purse strings of Islamic extremists.

Adam Szubin was nominated to be the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes nearly three months ago but has yet to receive a hearing from the Senate Banking Committee responsible for vetting him.

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chastised Republicans for the delay, arguing that “it is threatening our nation’s ability to combat terrorism” and groups such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

“One way to stop ISIS is to go after their funding. Republicans know that,” Reid said from the Senate floor. “Yet Republicans won’t confirm this good man. He can’t get a vote, and who knows why. Ask Republicans.”

The Senate Banking Committee has not announced public plans to move on Szubin’s nomination. A representative for Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) did not respond to repeated inquiries from The Hill.

The administration tried to shift the focus to Szubin on Monday as President Obama met with Pentagon brass to discuss the military campaign against ISIS.

“Senate Republicans won’t even give the time of day for a hearing to the person who is responsible for using all of the elements of our influence and authority to keep ISIL from raising money on the black market or otherwise,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

“Republicans have all too frequently allowed political considerations to trump national security,” Earnest added. “It’s never been appropriate, and it certainly isn’t appropriate in this instance.”

Despite the White House pressure, it’s unclear what practical effect confirming Szubin would have.

Szubin has been the acting head of the Treasury’s intelligence and anti-terrorism arm since February, when he replaced David Cohen, who is now deputy director of the CIA. 

In that post, Szubin is responsible for tracking and blocking money destined for hostile governments and terrorist groups, including the millions of dollars that are believed to be flowing to ISIS each week. That money comes from oil sales, ransoms paid for hostages and donations from wealthy supporters in nations such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

While Senate confirmation would lend Szubin extra clout, former government officials say he can perform most of his duties without it.

“I don’t think there is anything that we are trying to do that we cannot do or are hampered from doing because Adam is an acting capacity,” said Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury official who is now the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program for Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

In large part, that’s because of Szubin’s long tenure at the Treasury Department and the respect he’s built up over the years, Levitt said.

Before the new job, Szubin served for nine years as leader of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department’s sanctions arm that is now under his control as acting undersecretary. He has served in various roles in the Justice Department since 2000.

“Anybody who has been working in the space for the last few years knows and respects Adam,” Levitt said. “But it is true that if you are serious about accomplishing a goal, then it’s important to have confirmed people in office.”

The three-month delay is not exceptional for Senate Republicans, who have repeatedly sparred with the White House over nominees.

Szubin’s nomination is also caught up in the crossfire between the GOP and the White House over ISIS, with many Republicans arguing that the president is failing to articulate a clear strategy for defeating the group.

In 2011, Szubin’s predecessor was confirmed five months after his nomination, though by this point in the process Cohen had testified and received the stamp of approval from one Senate panel.

Still, Szubin doesn’t appear to have been singled out.

So far this year, the Banking Committee has not held a single hearing on any nominee, including other picks for the Export-Import Bank and the Federal Reserve System, among others.

“Mr. Szubin was nominated almost three months ago and the Senate should take up his nomination,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement to The Hill.

“There’s no reason why his nomination — and all the other nominations pending before the Banking Committee — should be left hanging in limbo.”

For the time being, he may not want to face the glare of a Senate hearing.

Much of the Treasury Department’s recent time has been spent analyzing sanctions on Iran, amid the possibility that they could be rolled back under a deal to limit that country’s nuclear capacity. On Tuesday, international negotiators further delayed the deadline for that deal to July 10.

As a key member of that sanctions team, any hearing on Szubin’s nomination could turn into a slugfest over the Obama administration’s Iran policy.

“To put it mildly, it would be a very spirited discussion, if not downright acrimonious,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department.

“You can see how it could benefit Adam, but also just imagine it starts off of that, it would be difficult as well.”

Some Republicans scoffed at the notion that anything was hampering the Obama administration’s fight against ISIS other than its own lack of a strategy.

“We’re not going to defeat a radical jihadist army with more bureaucrats in D.C. and no funding for our military on the front lines,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement after Obama’s visit to the Pentagon.

“It’s time for the president to acknowledge reality and make the hard decisions required to defeat ISIS once and for all.”

Jordain Carney contributed.