Report

Is the ‘Water’s Edge’ Vanishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

Dozens of U.S. ambassador posts abroad sit empty as partisan gridlock in Congress drags on.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a Senate hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Sen. Ted Cruz questions U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 14. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tensions erupted over a massive backlog for U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominees for foreign-policy posts in an unusually heated Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The dispute between Senate Democrats and Republicans, led in part by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who has issued a largely unprecedented blanket hold on most State Department nominees, underscores how increasingly partisan politics in Washington is affecting U.S. foreign policy and hamstringing U.S. diplomacy abroad. The heated meeting left lawmakers questioning whether politics stopped at the so-called water’s edge anymore or whether hyper-partisan gridlock that has come to define U.S. domestic politics is irreversibly infecting foreign policy.

“The senator has abused the process that this committee has in a way that, in my entire life in the Senate, I have never seen on either side of the aisle,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of Cruz.

Tensions erupted over a massive backlog for U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominees for foreign-policy posts in an unusually heated Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The dispute between Senate Democrats and Republicans, led in part by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who has issued a largely unprecedented blanket hold on most State Department nominees, underscores how increasingly partisan politics in Washington is affecting U.S. foreign policy and hamstringing U.S. diplomacy abroad. The heated meeting left lawmakers questioning whether politics stopped at the so-called water’s edge anymore or whether hyper-partisan gridlock that has come to define U.S. domestic politics is irreversibly infecting foreign policy.

“The senator has abused the process that this committee has in a way that, in my entire life in the Senate, I have never seen on either side of the aisle,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of Cruz.

During the meeting, the committee approved 14 nominations for ambassador and other State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development posts—specifically those at the assistant secretary or deputy administrator level, respectively—but some of those nominations now face an uncertain confirmation future on the Senate floor due to Republican holds.

Ten months into his administration, just five of Biden’s nominees for ambassador posts around the world have been confirmed in addition to Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations. Biden’s ambassador nominee to Canada, former Comcast executive David Cohen, was the latest to be approved by the Senate; he was confirmed on Tuesday night. At this stage in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, some 40 ambassadors had been confirmed. Some 60 of Biden’s nominees for ambassador posts are still awaiting confirmation, and a majority of U.S. ambassador posts abroad overall—97 posts in total—remain vacant, according to data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association.

During the meeting on Wednesday, Democrats on the committee hammered Cruz and Sen. James Risch, the ranking member, over delays in nomination hearings for key State Department and U.S. foreign aid officials as well as opposition for some nominees. Republicans countered that Biden was slow to issue nominations in the first place, nominees were moving out of committee at a reasonable pace, and the holds were over important policy disagreements with the president or specific nominees.

Mounting tensions over the backlog soon boiled over on Wednesday despite the committee being historically known for its bipartisan atmosphere.

“I know you want to do this for YouTube, for your presidential run, but stop putting words that I have not said,” Menendez said during one heated exchange with Cruz, when he accused the Republican senator of misquoting him as Cruz outlined his opposition to Biden’s candidate for the top State Department Middle East envoy position, Barbara Leaf. “You’re interrupting me again?” Cruz shot back. “Are you going to allow me to speak?”

The U.S. ambassador posts still vacant include those to China, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Italy, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, NATO, and the European Union. Countries like South Korea and Somalia also currently have no official U.S. representation, and because of the current blockade, the situation shows little sign of abating.

Although the blanket hold is largely unprecedented, lengthy holds on specific nominees aren’t limited to the Republican side; Senate Democrats held up Trump’s nominee to be the State Department’s top Middle East envoy for 358 days, for example.

“Senator Risch has vetted and helped move more than 90 nominees at the committee level—62 of which have been moved since August. However, Democrats are in control of the Senate and it is Leader Schumer’s job to take action on pending national security nominations,” a spokesperson for Risch said in response to the exchanges at the business meeting.

“The State Department and White House have an entire legislative affairs team whose job it is to work with Congress to resolve issues where there is an impasse. The committee should not be blamed for the administration’s unwillingness to engage with members to get things moving on the Senate floor.”

The spokesperson also said the processing time for nominees within the committee—before they move to floor votes—is faster with Risch as the ranking member than in the last Congress, when Risch was the chairperson and Menendez was the ranking member. At the time, Democrats repeatedly voiced concerns about the quality and background of certain nominees Trump put forward for ambassador posts in justifying their delays.

Empty ambassador posts are filled in an acting capacity by lower-level diplomats, and some have sat without a confirmed ambassador for years due to partisan gridlock in Washington or Senate opposition to some nominees. The U.S. ambassador post to Singapore, for example, has been vacant for nearly five years. (The committee on Wednesday voted to approve Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Singapore, Jonathan Kaplan.)

The vacant ambassador posts are beginning to have negative effects on the United States’ relationships with its allies, veteran U.S. and foreign diplomats conceded. Just this month, Biden embarked on a major diplomatic trip to Europe but with only a handful of ambassadorship posts filled.

Cruz issued a blanket hold on many of Biden’s nominees for foreign-policy posts over his opposition to the Biden administration’s policy on a controversial Russian pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, in Europe. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley also said he will issue a blanket hold on most nominees over opposition to Biden’s Afghanistan policy.

These holds prevent the Senate from confirming ambassadors by a streamlined “voice vote” and instead forces the Senate majority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, to invoke cloture and take procedural steps to break a filibuster and arrange a full vote. This move takes up limited and valuable Senate floor time the Democrats need to advance major legislation for the president’s domestic agenda.

The appointment backlog, veteran diplomats and some lawmakers said, will also hamper U.S. efforts to prepare for global competition with its main rival, China.

“We are in a competition with China, if you have not noticed,” fumed Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley during the committee hearing. “They’re saying the decisive nature of authoritarian control gets things done, and they’re pointing to America and saying, look, America can’t make decisions on fundamental issues.

“And they might put as a poster child this committee right now that has only been able to confirm and pass on five ambassadors in 10 months,” he added. “This is an unacceptable tragic outcome. It has to be addressed.”

During the hearing, Risch countered that the committee had cleared more than 50 nominees to the Senate floor—where Cruz and Hawley were holding up many of the nominees from being confirmed through a streamlined voice vote—and said he agreed it was important for a president to have nominees in place to effectively govern.

“Many of the delays in ambassadors have been delays in nominations that this admin has been incredibly slow in putting forward,” added Cruz in response to the criticism.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said the nominee blockade is disproportionately holding up women nominated for key leadership posts. “I would like to point out that, as the only woman on this committee, that most of the people who are being held up for these positions are women,” she said.

“What happened to ‘politics ends at the water’s edge?’” added Shaheen during the meeting. “I don’t know how we fix this, but what’s happening now is not working, and its not working just for the Senate, but its not working for the country.”

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

Anna Weber is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @annasweber

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