Why the Senate confirmed dozens of ambassadors at the last minute


The Senate on Friday and Saturday confirmed a long-delayed list of executive and judicial candidates, occupying positions that had been left open for months due to Republican obstruction.

The marathon session of the Senate, which took place in the early hours of Saturday morning before officially ending shortly after 4 a.m. Eastern, included confirmation votes for 41 ambassadors and nine judges of the tribunal. federal district appointed by President Joe Biden. according to Punchbowl News founder Jake Sherman.

Among these confirmed Rahm Emanuel as Ambassador to Japan, Denise Campbell Bauer as Ambassador to France and Mark Gitenstein as Ambassador to the EU.

The Senate also confirmed its 40th judge appointed by Biden, according to Washington Post journalist Seung Min Kim, more than any president in his first year in office since Ronald Reagan.

The rush of last-minute confirmations on Friday, the last day of the 2021 Senate session, was an effort to overcome a backlog of some 150 presidential candidates. Many diplomatic and national security posts remain open thanks to the obligation of Republicans in the Senate and the slow pace of nominations by the Biden administration. Despite Friday’s progress, many of the candidates who are still late will have to be reappointed by the president in the 2022 session, further delaying the process.

Republicans stalled confirmations to advance their own agendas

The overall process of confirming presidential candidates has become increasingly difficult in recent years, but Friday’s delay was the result of several specific demands from Republican senators.

In particular, Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have retained Biden’s foreign service and national security candidates until a vote on their own priorities is guaranteed.

Most presidential candidates have not been obstructed since a 2013 rule change (and none since 2017), so it is not technically possible for a single Republican senator to directly block confirmation. of a candidate. However, they can turn it into a grueling process if they deny unanimous consent to confirm nominations.

Specifically, while a single senator does not have the power to stop the process, as long as the candidate has the support of at least 50 senators with the vice president to break the tie, tin open the floor to the debate. This takes up significant time in the Senate, which would be a challenge at any time, but especially when the confirmation delay is so great and the House has other important priorities to address.

“In recent years, many of these candidates have sailed with consent and cooperation, but this year a handful of Republicans have hijacked Senate rules to slow the process,” said Chuck Schumer, leader of the Senate majority. . he told the Senate on Thursday. “It’s cynical, it’s totally useless and, worst of all, it’s detrimental, seriously detrimental, to our national security.”

Earlier on Friday, Cruz tried to reach an agreement with Schumer to change a vote on sanctions on the North Russian Stream 2 gas pipeline by votes to confirm 16 ambassadors and State Department officials, with no luck. While the United States is not in favor of Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany, the Biden administration has lifted sanctions against the company that built it to preserve the relationship. of the United States with Germany, a key ally that has approved the pipeline.

“I have made it clear to all State Department officials, to all State Department candidates, that I will withhold these candidates unless and until the Biden administration follows the law and stops this pipeline and it imposes sanctions, “Cruz said in August. statement.

Cruz finally got his vote – scheduled for January 14 – and agreed to release his control over dozens of diplomatic candidacies, which were confirmed overnight.

Hawley has also tried Cruz’s stagnation tactic, albeit with less success. Following the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Hawley pledged to block all candidates for Biden and Pentagon national security unless Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have resigned. That hasn’t happened, but Hawley has threatened to suspend the confirmation process “for as long as it takes,” he said in early December. “If I’m still on the ground doing this in 2023, so be it, in 2024, so be it, until someone is responsible.”

Hawley and Cruz, in particular, may have broader reasons for their obstruction; both have been accused of blocking nominations at least in part for positioning themselves as Biden antagonists in possible 2024 races.

Despite the challenges of Cruz and Hawley, Democrats continued with a total of 56 votes, according to the Washington Post, as well as a vote to confirm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan.

Schumer, on the other hand, seemed quite pleased with the result of the long night of voting.

“By the end of the day, we will have called for the closure of two circuit judges, confirmed nine district court judges, confirmed 41 ambassadors and confirmed five more members of President Biden’s team,” he said Saturday, according to Hill. “It’s been a long day but a good day at work. I thank my colleagues. “

Ambassadors are critical diplomatic positions

In addition to Friday’s confirmation party, the Senate also confirmed on Thursday one of Biden’s highest-profile ambassador candidates after Rubio agreed to allow Nicholas Burns’ confirmation as ambassador to China to continue smoothly.

Burns, a career diplomat who served as both a Republican and a Democrat for a 30-year career, including as Undersecretary of State from 2005 to 2008 and as U.S. Ambassador to NATO, was appointed to the United States. August; until this week, his post had been unoccupied for the past 14 months amid rising tensions between the United States and China.

Rubio had been holding hostage Burns’ nomination pending a vote on legislation to penalize slave labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on Thursday and Biden has indicated he would sign it as law.

But the logic of keeping key nominations on individual legislative priorities, even when they are related, is opaque at best and potentially detrimental at worst.

As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) pointed out. in the Senate in September, this kind of obstruction prevents professionals who can help achieve these priorities, or at least manage diplomatic relations, from doing their job.

“My colleagues need a lot to be on the ground and criticize the president’s foreign policy behavior while refusing to allow the president to have staff to carry out foreign policy,” Murphy said.

Similarly, according to Politico, European politicians had also been frustrated by Cruz’s obstruction ahead of Friday’s confirmations. “Cruz is blocking everything,” said a senior EU official.

What happens next?

After requesting confirmation from 22 candidates for Biden, Schumer warned on Thursday that “we could be back here in the near future doing it all over again.”

This is due to the fact that despite the number of candidates confirmed on Friday, many of those still pending will have to return to Biden’s desk to be renamed in the new year, go through the same committee process and potentially give the Republicans more likely to encourage confirmation. .

The Senate is currently scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 3 and will vote on Gabriel Sanchez’s confirmation in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the long run, however, the confirmation process could be revised to avoid long delays. According to Politico’s Andrew Desiderio, some senators are pushing for a rule change to prevent this type of confirmation delay from happening again. A bipartisan group met on Monday to discuss possible rule changes to avoid the kind of obstruction that contributed to the current delay in confirmation, but it is unclear how those changes could be.

Murphy, meanwhile, told Desiderio that he was worried about future confirmation fights.

“My concern is that this does not go away, not just in the ambassadors,” Murphy said. “I mean, everyone is in control of every agency. So it doesn’t look like the rules, as they stand now, work for the nominees.”