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UPDATED: Levin lifts hold on State Near East official, bureau makes senior appointments

UPDATED: Levin lifts hold on State Near East official, bureau makes senior appointments

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) lifted his hold today on the confirmation of Jeffrey Feltman to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, a Levin staffer tells Foreign Policy. The move clears Feltman to be confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent, perhaps even as early as tonight, a Hill foreign policy aide said, adding he doubted there would be a need for a roll-call vote.

As previously reported, Levin had been exercising the hold on the senior Near East appointment to pressure the administration to make eligible for Libyan relief compensation funds an Italian-born constituent who had been wounded in a 1985 terrorist attack on Rome’s airport. Feltman, who has recused himself from the case, has declined to comment.

Meantime, sources say, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma has gone to Levin with two offers in the past month trying to resolve the issue. The Michigan Democrat apparently didn’t find either offer satisfactory, while word from State after the second go-round was that Levin had "raised the bar."

Levin’s office declined to say how the matter was resolved today. Earlier Thursday, it had declined to comment on the matter. Verma has not responded to queries.

Last year, Levin had received a letter from a former top Bush administration State Department official that would have met his requirements, a Washington Middle East hand previously explained on condition of anonymity, but had been unable to get the U.S. government to follow through on whatever that letter promised regarding extending eligibility for Libya relief funds for his constituent.

Feltman, a well-liked career foreign service officer and former ambassador to Lebanon who assumed the role of acting head of the NEA bureau after the retirement of David Welch last December, has had some other unreported good news of late.

He was finally able earlier this month to make senior hires in the bureau.  Among the most senior NEA appointments, Ronald L. Schlicher, a former ambassador to Cyprus and consul general in Jerusalem, came on as Feltman’s PDAS on July 20. Schlicher oversees all the other DASes in the bureau, and has "executive section" authorities to make decisions on IT, budgets, personnel, human resources, funding and staffing. The State Department’s Iran office, directed by Todd Schwartz, also reports to Schlicher.

Bureau DAS appointments that were finalized in the past couple weeks: Janet Sanderson, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti and deputy chief of mission in Amman, became the DAS for the Maghreb and Arab Peninsula earlier this week. Michael Corbin, a former US charge d’affaires in Damascus and official in Iraq, became the new DAS for Iraq.  Maura Connelly came on July 13 as the DAS for Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the Levant. Madeleine Spirnak continues to serve as the acting DAS for public diplomacy and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

The Cable previously reported that the Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes is a candidate to become the DAS for Middle East democracy/Arab reform issues. (Wittes, who previously declined to comment, couldn’t be reached Thursday.)

"Every bureau has a set number of DAS slots, some Foreign Service, some Civil Service (in regional bureaus like NEA, most are Foreign Service)," a State Department official explained. "A few are Schedule C (political appointees).  Each bureau has the right to fill those jobs as it sees fit, once the candidate is approved by a senior personnel review committee.  A Senate hold wouldn’t necessarily hold up that process." 

One source speaking not for attribution said a new senior NEA official had recently remarked that he did not know how Feltman had managed to run the bureau (which after all counts in its map Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Libya among a few warm spots) without getting his team in place for this long – almost eight months. Feltman, currently attending a Centcom conference, also recently lost a day sitting through jury selection (he wasn’t ultimately picked), a department hand said.

The hold on Feltman’s confirmation became an issue at the State Department press briefing yesterday. Asked by a reporter if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken to her former Senate colleague on the matter, spokesman Ian Kelly said, "Well, of course, we’re all looking forward to having Jeff become the confirmed assistant secretary.  There’s a lot of important diplomatic activity under his purview in North Africa and the Middle East.  I know the Secretary is eager to have him come on board as a full-fledged assistant secretary, but I don’t think I’m prepared to talk about what exactly she’s done with Congress."

Later on, a reporter opined to Kelly, this is "a political holdup by a member of Congress because of an issue that has nothing to do with his nomination," before throwing in a question, "What can you do about it to end the standoff?"

UPDATE: Word from a Hill staffer Friday afternoon: "The Senate didn’t move [Feltman] this week.  One reason….Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)."