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Senators pry open spigot for Biden’s diplomatic nominees

Texas Republican could use another backlog to try forcing Speaker Pelosi to take up his Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill

Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China, was among a list of diplomatic nominees recently confirmed by the Senate.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China, was among a list of diplomatic nominees recently confirmed by the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The spigot has opened on getting President Joe Biden’s diplomatic nominees confirmed — but it took some doing by senators.

The confirmation in recent days and weeks of dozens of State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development nominees is the result of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s increasing willingness to spend precious floor time to hold procedural votes on diplomatic nominees. It also took a few hardball deals struck between the parties to allow votes on GOP bills in exchange for Republican senators agreeing to lift their holds on nominees.

Last week, senators voted 61-26 to confirm Anne Witkowsky to be an assistant secretary of State for conflict and stabilization operations. She joins a slew of ambassadors and senior State Department officials who were confirmed in December.

Right before the holiday break, Schumer, D-N.Y., reached a deal with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to use the unanimous consent process to confirm some three dozen noncontroversial ambassadors and senior State Department officials. In exchange, Cruz extracted a commitment that the Senate would vote no later than Jan. 14 on his bill to mandate sanctions on companies assisting in the development of the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

Among those confirmed as part of the deal were nearly 30 country ambassadors, including envoys to Argentina, Bahrain, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Vietnam. Other confirmed positions included were the undersecretary of State for management, the assistant secretary for international organization affairs, the special representative for nuclear proliferation and the ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“We are happy that a lot got out,” said Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador who now leads the American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonpartisan organization composed of former senior diplomats. “It’s definitely progress, and both sides should be congratulated.”

Cruz vs. Pelosi?

Also confirmed via floor votes in December were the ambassadors to Japan and China, a USAID assistant administrator, an assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs, as well as the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Left over from last year are some 11 diplomatic nominees who were approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but didn’t receive a floor vote. They include the assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, as well as the director general of the Foreign Service — a position roughly equivalent to the chief of staff of the Army.

If Cruz’s Nord Stream 2 sanctions legislation is able to pass the Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the House. To that end, Cruz last month indicated he will continue to place holds on State Department nominees in order to amass leverage to try to compel Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on the sanctions measure.

“There is a still a significant problem with the administration not being adequately staffed, particularly in its senior foreign policy ranks in Washington,” said Neumann, who served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. He also served in Washington as Foggy Bottom’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near East Affairs from 1997 to 2000.

Neumann sees blame to go around, including with the White House for being in some cases slow to settle on nominees for key positions. Among those positions still lacking nominees that lawmakers are clamoring to see action on are ambassadors for Ukraine and South Korea.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will return to the work of advancing nominees, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for Biden’s picks for State Department legal adviser and sanctions coordinator. Committee confirmation votes are also teed up for the ambassador nominees to Germany, Pakistan and the Vatican. Former Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has been nominated to fill that last position.

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