WASHINGTON – Frustrated Senate Democrats are working with the Biden administration to speed up the confirmation of key diplomatic positions that have been blocked by a pair of Senate Republicans.
With more than 80 Biden State Department nominees awaiting confirmation and a measly 15 confirmed so far, high-level vacancies are becoming increasingly visible as the administration enters its eighth month in office. Dozens of aspiring ambassadors, special envoys and assistant secretaries are among those unable to begin work until the Senate acts.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threatened to keep the camera in session late into the night and possibly on weekends. He accused the two Republicans of “deliberately making the American people less secure in a vain and futile effort to improve their political fortunes.”
“This chamber under this leadership is not going to tolerate some members who want to mess up the confirmation process to make a scene,” said Schumer, DN.Y., while preparing the votes of seven late State Department nominees.
Senators Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have been using the power given to all individual senators to delay confirmations and try to force President Joe Biden’s hand on national security.
Cruz for months has suspended all State Department nominees until the administration imposes certain sanctions for Russia’s construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Hawley, in an even broader lawsuit, announced last week that he would delay all State Department and Pentagon nominees until Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan resigned. .
“Leaders take responsibility for their failures,” Hawley said in the Senate, citing Afghanistan’s disorderly departure from the Biden administration. “There must be a new beginning.”
Achieving Republican cooperation to pass the roughly 1,200 Senate-confirmed seats across the federal government has been a major challenge for the Biden administration and its predecessors.
Over the years, the average confirmation time doubled between the Reagan administration and the Trump administration, according to the Nonpartisan Association for Public Service.
“This is not just an internal baseball issue,” said Max Stier, executive director of the Partnership for Public Service. “These are the people who are supposed to be grappling with our biggest challenges as a country, from withdrawing from Afghanistan to getting assistance in renting out financially distressed people to coping with the climate change pandemic.”
Yet the problem is particularly acute in the State Department, which has more Senate-confirmed political appointments than any other, nearly 150 more than the Defense Department. So far, the Senate has confirmed only two of Biden’s nominees to serve as U.S. ambassadors.
Individual senators like Hawley and Cruz cannot permanently block a nominee. But they can use Senate rules to force procedural steps that are skipped when all senators agree, but take days to complete if anyone objects.
“What they’re doing is pouring sand into the machine, but it’s still possible to move people forward,” Stier said. “You have to consume a lot of your watch, and there are many other competing interests trying to do that, including other nominees.”
Both potential 2024 presidential candidates, Hawley and Cruz, have worked to bolster their foreign policy credentials while serving as vocal counterweights to Biden’s foreign policy agenda.
In a statement to NBC News, Hawley said he was seeking responsibility for “Biden’s failed Afghanistan withdrawal that killed 13 US service members and left hundreds of Americans stranded.”
“Democrats might think accountability is a ‘waste of time,’ but they are wrong. They have a lot to answer for and this is the least we can do, ”Hawley said.
Cruz’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Of the more than 80 State Department nominees awaiting confirmation, more than 60 have already gone through the first step: approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to records provided by the State Department. Many were approved unanimously, meaning that no Republicans objected at the committee level.
The vacancies have been a source of growing frustration at the State Department, within the White House, and among American diplomats, many of whom say they leave the American government conducting high-stakes diplomacy with one hand tied to the ground. back.
“For our national security, I respectfully urge the Senate and this committee to act as quickly as possible to consider and confirm all pending nominees and address what is a significant disruption to our national security policy making,” Blinken told the Committee. of Foreign Relations of the Senate. month.
The vacancies have already had an effect in the real world. When the United States began its frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan, there were no Senate-confirmed ambassadors in the country where it had been at war for two decades, and the Embassy in Kabul relied instead on a former foreign service officer called in since retirement to direct the mission. The high-level post overseeing that Asian region was also vacant.
When the Taliban seized Kabul in August, American diplomat John Bass was teaching a class for future ambassadors at the department’s Foreign Service Institute when he learned that he would be sent to Kabul immediately. Bass, who had served as ambassador to Afghanistan once before, left midway through the conference to prepare to head to Kabul to help with the evacuation, a person with knowledge of the event said.
Last week, the American Foreign Service Association, the predominant union representing American diplomats, said it would step up calls to address “the over-politicization of confirmation processes” by foreign policy professionals.
“The delays are no longer an inconvenience, they are becoming a threat to our national security,” said the diplomatic union.
While the Biden administration’s struggles to confirm diplomats reflect a growing partisan stalemate in Congress, this is not the first time that vacant positions have weighed on national security.
The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks, only 57 percent of the 123 top positions confirmed by the Senate were filled in the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and the State Department combined, excluding American ambassadors, marshals, and attorneys. . The report warned that in addition to the delays caused by the lengthy election, the slow Senate confirmation process had left the United States vulnerable.