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Parsing the drama in the Senate over Biden’s nominations

Republicans' delaying tactics show why chamber does so much routine business by unanimous consent

The only way for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to overcome GOP roadblocks in the backlog of President Joe Biden’s nominees is to prepare for longer days and weeks ahead.
The only way for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to overcome GOP roadblocks in the backlog of President Joe Biden’s nominees is to prepare for longer days and weeks ahead. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — The Senate started to make a dent in the backlog of President Joe Biden’s executive branch nominees Thursday, but the blanket GOP objections to even routine nominees at agencies like the State Department have left Democrats with difficult questions about prioritization.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has the tools at his disposal to overcome Republican delaying tactics, but Thursday night offered a reminder of why the Senate does so much of its routine business by unanimous consent: to do otherwise is painful and complicated.

With Biden having formally nominated more than 450 people for roles requiring the Senate’s advice and consent and only seeing about 150 confirmed as of Sept. 20, the only way forward for Democrats may be longer days and weeks, since the Republican roadblocks show no signs of going way.

Senators were expected Thursday to hold roll call votes to confirm eight of Biden’s nominees: a federal district judge in Washington, followed by a sequence of debate-limiting cloture votes and up to two hours of debate prior to confirmation of seven executive branch positions.

When the Senate departed, only two of the seven were actually confirmed: Sarah Bianchi to be a deputy U.S. trade representative and Daniel J. Kritenbrink to be the assistant secretary of State overseeing East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Schumer reached an agreement to get through the cloture votes on the rest of the list but to hold off confirmation until the week of Sept. 27, a deal that kept an unusually long Thursday session from getting even longer.

Even then, the slog of nomination votes ran well into the evening, past the time that senators usually leave Capitol Hill during a routine workweek — and ahead of an entirely predictable showdown over government funding and the debt limit in the last week of September.

“I’ve had plenty — over the course of 30 years of doing foreign policy work between the House and 16 years in the Senate — plenty of moments where I had a fundamental disagreement, a very strong one, with an administration about their policy,” Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a floor speech before the time agreement was reached. “But I did not hold up the entire national security infrastructure of the State Department that puts at risk the nation.”

Democrats have been particularly critical of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has a hold on positions across the national security infrastructure over the Biden administration’s handling of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

But Cruz does not appear to be bending anytime soon, spending ample floor time Thursday detailing his opposition to the pipeline and peppering his Twitter stream with his argument against it as a giveaway to Russian President Vladimir Putin and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

“Putin uses energy as a weapon. That’s why there is a crushing danger of Russia using #NordStream2 for blackmail and coercion. It must be prevented from coming fully online,” Cruz tweeted Thursday. 

In addition, Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley says he is objecting to expediting a host of nominees unless Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken resign over the handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

“I don’t want to hear people come to the floor and talk about national security when they are keeping these positions vacant,” Menendez said.

The White House is continuing to call for the GOP senators to lift their objections because, as Thursday night’s cloture votes demonstrated, there’s limited substantive opposition. Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting to proceed. 

“It is critical for our national security and foreign policy that the Senate move forward with these qualified, experienced nominees as quickly as possible,” a White House spokesperson said. “We hope some Senate Republicans will cease using time-consuming delay tactics to slow the confirmation process — even though many nominees have received strong bipartisan support — so these public servants can help restore our country’s standing around the world and advocate for American interests abroad.”

But if that cooperation doesn’t materialize, it may be time to bring out the Senate’s cots.  

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