Report

Biden Administration Calls on Senate to Confirm State Department Nominees

Sen. Ted Cruz wages an unprecedented partisan fight with the U.S. president over a Russian pipeline project, hobbling the administration’s foreign policy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifies before the Senate.
Then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 29, 2014. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A top State Department official urged Congress to swiftly confirm U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominees to senior diplomatic roles amid an impasse between the administration and a Republican lawmaker that has ground the confirmation process to a halt.

Wendy Sherman, Biden’s deputy secretary of state, warned during a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the administration was “hamstrung” in its ability to conduct foreign policy without putting in place all of Biden’s State Department nominees, who require Senate confirmation. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz issued a blanket hold on State Department nominees last month, ostensibly due to a dispute with the Biden administration over a controversial Russian gas pipeline project in Europe. Cruz said he would refuse to lift his hold, which affects dozens of State Department nominees including for ambassador posts across Africa and Asia, until the Biden administration agrees to comply with congressionally mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

Sherman in her remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not directly address Cruz or his hold, but she said the absence of confirmed senior State Department officials is hampering diplomats’ abilities to do their jobs.

A top State Department official urged Congress to swiftly confirm U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominees to senior diplomatic roles amid an impasse between the administration and a Republican lawmaker that has ground the confirmation process to a halt.

Wendy Sherman, Biden’s deputy secretary of state, warned during a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the administration was “hamstrung” in its ability to conduct foreign policy without putting in place all of Biden’s State Department nominees, who require Senate confirmation. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz issued a blanket hold on State Department nominees last month, ostensibly due to a dispute with the Biden administration over a controversial Russian gas pipeline project in Europe. Cruz said he would refuse to lift his hold, which affects dozens of State Department nominees including for ambassador posts across Africa and Asia, until the Biden administration agrees to comply with congressionally mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

Sherman in her remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not directly address Cruz or his hold, but she said the absence of confirmed senior State Department officials is hampering diplomats’ abilities to do their jobs.

“We are currently hamstrung in our ability to advance America’s interests around the world without confirmed ambassadors and senior leaders,” she told lawmakers during the Senate hearing, which focused on authorizations to use military force. “I recently returned from a trip from China, where it would have been very helpful to have had the expertise of Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, our nominee to serve as the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who has passed through this committee and is awaiting floor approval.”

Kritenbrink is one of over two dozen nominees caught in indefinite limbo amid the political battle between Cruz and the Biden administration. Also waiting are the ambassador nominees for Mexico, Somalia, and Cameroon, as well as two dozen other nominees for senior State Department leadership posts in Washington and ambassador posts abroad. A senator cannot permanently block a nominee, but placing a hold can stop procedural steps to expedite the confirmation process. This could effectively halt a confirmation indefinitely, as other political priorities for Congress crowd the Senate floor.

Sherman’s remarks underscore the growing frustration inside the administration with the hold on dozens of State Department nominees, and they highlight the political fallout from the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 project in a deal with Germany. Biden’s decision incensed lawmakers on Capitol Hill and angered U.S. allies in Eastern Europe.

Veteran diplomats say in the long term, the lengthy absence of ambassadors from their posts will harm U.S. foreign policy and standing abroad. Many ambassador posts sat empty and without nominees for months or even years under former President Donald Trump. Former diplomats and experts also criticized Biden for the slow pace of announcing State Department leadership and ambassador nominees during his first six months in office, even before Cruz put a hold on nominees.

“The situation was already quite bad before these Senate holds,” said Eric Rubin, a senior career diplomat who serves as president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents foreign service officers. “We have some ambassadorship posts, Singapore is an example, that has been vacant for five years. We have many others that have been vacant for two or three years, and a whole bunch that have been vacant for a year, and no, the world doesn’t understand or appreciate what’s wrong with our system.”

“We’re the only country that acts in this way, and not only is it harmful to us but it really hurts our standing in the world when people see how dysfunctional we are,” he said.

Neither Cruz’s office nor the office of Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded to a request for comment.

It’s unclear how much support, if any, Cruz has from other Republicans on the committee in his blanket hold—though both Democrats and Republicans on the committee have voiced frustration at Biden’s Nord Stream 2 policy. So far, no Republicans have publicly rebuked Cruz over his hold. Sherman in her remarks thanked both Risch and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez for their “help in confirming, trying to confirm, pending State Department nominees.”

Democratic and Republican aides described Cruz’s blanket hold to Foreign Policy as unprecedented. Administration officials and Democrats on the committee have criticized Cruz’s move, saying it is disrupting the State Department’s ability to conduct routine foreign-policy matters, and leaving the few Senate-confirmed leaders at the department overstretched.

“This is not about substance. This is all a result of Republicans slow-walking us every step of the way for political reasons,” said one Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “These holdover requests have never been weaponized like this.”

Menendez told Sherman at the hearing: “We share your concerns about having a State Department that is fully staffed at some of the highest levels to promote U.S. foreign policy and pursue U.S. national security and national interests.” At the same time, though, he’s lambasted the deal that allows the second big Russian pipeline to feed natural gas directly to Germany, issuing a joint statement Monday with his counterparts in Estonia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania rebuking the Biden administration’s deal with Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

“The completion of the pipeline will strengthen the impact of Russian gas in the European energy mix, endanger the national security of EU member states and the United States, and threaten the already precarious security and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Menendez and his counterparts wrote.

Biden administration officials have argued that because the pipeline was mostly complete when the president took office, sanctions alone could not stop the pipeline, and they wanted to coordinate a deal that would minimize the negative impacts of the project on Germany, Ukraine, and other European countries.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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