Why the Senate confirmed dozens of ambassadors at the last minute


The Senate confirmed on Friday and Saturday a long-delayed slate of executive and judicial candidates, filling positions left open for months due to Republican obstruction.

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

Among them confirmed were US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, US Ambassador to France Denise Campbell Bauer and US Ambassador to the European Union Mark Gitenstein.

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

The rush for last-minute confirmations on Friday – the last day of the 2021 Senate session – was an effort to overcome a backlog of around 150 presidential candidates. Many diplomatic and national security posts remain open thanks to the obstruction of Republicans in the Senate and the slow appointments of the Biden administration. Despite Friday’s progress, many nominees are still pending must be reappointed by the president in the new session, which further delays the process.

Republicans have blocked confirmations to advance their own agendas

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

Specifically, Sense. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio all withheld Biden’s foreign service and national security candidates until their own priorities were guaranteed a vote.

Most presidential candidates have not been systematically obstructed since a rule change in 2013 (and none since 2017), so it is technically not possible for a single Republican senator. to block the confirmation of a candidate altogether. However, they can make it an exhausting process by denying unanimous consent to confirm appointments.

Specifically, while a single senator does not have the power to completely stop the process – provided the candidate has the support of at least 50 senators with the vice president to break a tie – they can open the floor to debate. It takes a long time in the Senate, which would be a challenge at any time, but especially when the backlog of confirmation is so large and the House has other major priorities to deal with.

“Over the past few years many of these candidates would have sailed with consent and cooperation, but this year a handful of Republicans have hijacked Senate rules to slow the process,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck. Schumer. declared Thursday in the Senate. “It’s cynical, it’s totally unnecessary, and worst of all, it’s damaging – gravely damaging – our national security.”

Before Friday, Cruz attempted to strike a deal with Schumer to trade a sanctions vote against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline for votes to confirm 16 ambassadors and State Department officials, without any luck. While the United States does not support Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, the Biden administration penalties canceled against the company that builds it preserve U.S. relations with Germany, a key ally who approved the pipeline.

“I have made it clear to every State Department official, to every State Department candidate, that I will put those candidates on hold unless and until the Biden administration follows the law and stops it. pipeline and impose sanctions “, Cruz said in an August statement.

Ultimately, Cruz got his vote – it’s slated for Jan. 14 – and agreed to lift his hold on dozens of diplomatic appointments, which were confirmed overnight.

Hawley also tried Cruz’s stall tactic, but with less success. After the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Hawley pledged to block all of Biden’s national security and Pentagon candidates unless Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken resign from their posts. This did not happen, but Hawley threatened to suspend the confirmation process “as long as it takes” because he said at the beginning of december. “If I’m still on the ground doing this in 2023, so be it in 2024, so be it, until someone is held accountable.”

Hawley and Cruz in particular may have broader reasons for their obstruction – both have been accused of blocking nominations at least in part to position themselves as Biden antagonists in potential 2024 races.

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

Schumer, for his part, seemed quite pleased with the outcome of the long night of voting.

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

Ambassadors are essential diplomatic posts

In addition to Friday’s confirmation frenzy, the Senate also confirmed one of Biden’s most high-profile candidate ambassadors on Thursday after Rubio agreed to allow Nicholas Burns’s confirmation as ambassador to China to go smoothly.

Burns, a career diplomat who served under both Republicans and Democrats over a 30-year career, including as Under Secretary of State from 2005 to 2008 and as United States Ambassador to NATO, has been nominated in August; until this week his post was gone not filled in the last 14 months amid growing tensions between the United States and China.

Rubio was holding Burns’ appointment hostage pending a vote on his legislation to sanction products made by slave labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. the The Senate passed the bill unanimously on Thursday, and Biden has indicated he will sign it into law.

But the logic of keeping key appointments on individual legislative priorities, even when linked, is opaque at best and potentially damaging at worst.

Like Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) underlined in the Senate in September, this kind of obstruction prevents professionals who could help achieve those priorities, or at least manage diplomatic relations, from doing their jobs.

“It just takes a lot of nerve for my colleagues to stand here on the floor and criticize the conduct of the president’s foreign policy at the same time as they refuse to allow the president to have staff to conduct foreign policy,” Murphy said.

Likewise, according to Politics, European politicians would also have become frustrated by Cruz’s obstruction before Friday’s confirmations. “Cruz blocks everything,” lamented a senior EU official.

What happens next?

After filing a request for closure on 22 Biden candidates awaiting confirmation, Schumer warned Thursday that “we might be back here in the near future to do this all over again.”

That’s because, despite the number of nominees confirmed on Friday, many of those still pending will have to return to Biden’s office to be re-nominated in the New Year – going through the same committee process and potentially giving Republicans more of a chance to slow down their confirmation.

Currently, the Senate is expected to meet again on January 3 and will vote on Gabriel Sanchez’s confirmation to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the long term, however, the confirmation process could be revised to avoid long delays. According to Andrew Desiderio of Politico, some senators are asking for a change in the rules to prevent this type of confirmation delay from happening again. A bipartisan group met on Monday to discuss potential rule changes to avoid the kind of obstruction that has contributed to the current confirmation backlog, but it’s unclear what those changes might look like.

In the meantime, Murphy has told Desiderio he’s worried about future Confirmation fights.

“My concern is that this won’t go away, not just for ambassadors,” Murphy said. “I mean, everyone has a grip on every agency. So, it doesn’t look like the rules, as they currently exist, are working for the nominees. “

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