It took more than 200 days, but the Biden administration has its first confirmed country ambassador, and tensions over the diplomatic posts are boiling on Capitol Hill.
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was confirmed by the Senate via a voice vote early Wednesday morning to be Washington’s ambassador to Mexico, one of the United States’ most important trade and security partners.
No other recent administration has had to wait so long to have country ambassadors in place. There are multiple reasons for why it has taken so long to get the first permanent ambassador confirmed and sent out to their post: administration sluggishness, the Senate’s reduced work schedule and the likely 2024 presidential aspirations of Republican Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas.
For starters, the Biden White House has focused on filling other senior administration positions while it sorts out how to balance campaign promises. That includes reprofessionalizing and depoliticizing the State Department while also handling the desire of some prominent Democratic donors to be rewarded with cushy ambassadorial posts.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to strike that balance more skillfully than did its predecessor. Former President Donald Trump installed a historically large number of big-dollar donors as ambassadors, leading to a term beset by scandals and controversies.
The White House has yet to nominate an ambassador for the United Kingdom, while the ambassadorial nominee for Canada was named just late last month.
But even as the administration appears to be taking its time in considering who to name for some of the highest-profile posts, a slew of other nominees have been named, many of them noncontroversial career diplomats.
Their progress in the Senate is largely being blocked by one senator: Cruz, who also has been routinely delaying nomination votes at the Foreign Relations Committee level.
Democrats are growing increasingly heated over the lack of confirmed ambassadors as well as delayed votes on numerous other senior State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development positions. Biden nominated his first batch of country ambassadors in mid-April. All of them were Foreign Service officers. None have been confirmed.
Early Wednesday morning, just before the Senate adjourned for a monthlong summer recess, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and panel member Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., requested unanimous consent on the floor to confirm 28 diplomatic and international development nominees.
The Texas senator vowed to continue blocking such requests unless the State Department meets his demand of imposing sanctions on the construction of the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. That is almost certainly impossible after the Biden administration and Berlin last month struck an agreement that essentially guarantees the Baltic Sea project’s completion. It is already 98 percent finished.
“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin desperately wants this pipeline to be completed. If the pipeline is completed, it will give billions of dollars to Putin to use for malign efforts in Europe and throughout the world,” said Cruz. “This Congress is overwhelmingly convinced that completing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is terrible policy.”
In seeking to highlight his concerns about the potential for Putin to use proceeds from the pipeline to fund his anti-democratic activities at home and abroad, Cruz failed to note his own recent actions in that arena. On Jan. 6, Cruz led a group of GOP senators in voting against certifying the results of President Joe Biden’s legitimate electoral win, an action that has had far-reaching and ongoing consequences for Americans’ faith in their election system.
For his part, Menendez noted that the Trump administration had its first ambassador confirmed on day 62, the Obama administration on day 73, the George W. Bush administration on day 75, the Clinton administration on day 75, and the George H.W. Bush administration on day 83.
“As of this moment, there is not a single confirmed State Department country ambassador. Not one,” said Menendez, shortly before Salazar was confirmed. “We should be ashamed of holding the record for the longest delay in fully equipping the State Department and USAID to pursue the foreign policy, development and national security interests of the United States.”
Slow-walking nomination votes
In recent administrations, the Senate has typically confirmed large groups of diplomatic nominees on its way out of town for its annual August recess. But that was not the case this year.
Among the positions Cruz blocked on Wednesday were ambassadors to Vietnam, Algeria and Somalia and 12 assistant secretaries of state, including for intelligence, political-military affairs, Europe, Africa, South Asia and East Asia. Nominees for three senior USAID positions were also blocked.
“It’s important for us around the world to have qualified ambassadors who are confirmed by the Senate to lead our country and represent our country,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a Wednesday press briefing.
Out of a total of 189 Senate-confirmable ambassador positions, the White House has 55 nominations pending before the Senate, according to statistics compiled by the American Foreign Service Association.
Some ambassador jobs are still being filled by Trump appointees, but 97 posts have no permanent ambassador, including China (of which there is no formal nominee), Afghanistan (no nominee), Australia (no nominee), Japan (no nominee), Brazil (no nominee), Germany (pending in the Senate) and Israel (pending).
“I acknowledge that Sen. Cruz’s opposition is based … on a policy difference about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but to insist that this view must prevail and to try to hold the whole foreign policy process of the administration hostage to one senator’s view I think is irresponsible,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an independent nonprofit association of former senior diplomats that seeks to strengthen U.S. diplomacy.
“I think it’s damaging to the administration’s ability to conduct foreign policy,” he added.
But in an interview, Neumann, a former three-time U.S. ambassador, wasn’t letting Democrats off the hook.
Senators from both parties, he said, have increasingly abused the practice of putting holds on diplomatic nominees for reasons that have nothing to do with objections to the nominee’s qualifications or character. Still, Cruz’s recent blanket hold on virtually all UC requests for State Department nominees is “the most extreme example” Neumann could recall.
One reason the UC process has become so heavily relied upon is that the Senate majority leader, regardless of party, in recent decades hasn’t wanted to devote the necessary time to hold floor votes on the nominees. They have preferred to devote their floor dockets to votes on bills and higher-profile administration nominees that will be close votes.
“I think it is also incumbent on [Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York] to push this process through,” Neumann said.
“If he doesn’t want to address the [nominees] in normal business hours, then maybe he should keep the Senate in session over weekends and nights and get the business done,” the former ambassador said. “The only reason he can’t find the time to do this is because the Senate works such a reduced workweek.”