Republican Senators Block Confirmation of Key Biden Officials, Stymying Ukraine Response

A Democratic lawmaker accuses Sen. Rick Scott of “single-handedly undermining” the United States’ full response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Rick Scott attends a Senate hearing.
Sen. Rick Scott attends a Senate hearing.
Sen. Rick Scott attends a Senate hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 10, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images

Putin’s War

In recent weeks, the Biden administration and key Republican lawmakers have forged a rare consensus on the need for a tougher response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, advocating for providing deadlier weapons, imposing ruinous sanctions, and promoting vigorous efforts to address the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Yet, at the same time, Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Roger Marshall of Kansas, have placed holds on the confirmation of several key Biden administration appointees with critical roles in addressing Ukraine’s crisis, including top officials destined for the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development as well as who are responsible for managing U.S. policy on sanctions, humanitarian relief, refugees, and nuclear and chemical security.

Despite the outward show of unity toward Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following his address to Congress, the nominee blockade shows Washington’s partisan divide is still managing to stymie the White House’s efforts to mobilize the world behind a coherent diplomatic, military, and legal strategy to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from continuing and expanding his military conquest of Ukraine, even at a time when most Democrats and Republicans in Congress share the goal of holding Russia’s leader accountable for atrocities during the war.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration and key Republican lawmakers have forged a rare consensus on the need for a tougher response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, advocating for providing deadlier weapons, imposing ruinous sanctions, and promoting vigorous efforts to address the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Yet, at the same time, Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Roger Marshall of Kansas, have placed holds on the confirmation of several key Biden administration appointees with critical roles in addressing Ukraine’s crisis, including top officials destined for the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development as well as who are responsible for managing U.S. policy on sanctions, humanitarian relief, refugees, and nuclear and chemical security.

Despite the outward show of unity toward Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following his address to Congress, the nominee blockade shows Washington’s partisan divide is still managing to stymie the White House’s efforts to mobilize the world behind a coherent diplomatic, military, and legal strategy to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from continuing and expanding his military conquest of Ukraine, even at a time when most Democrats and Republicans in Congress share the goal of holding Russia’s leader accountable for atrocities during the war.

“The number of highly relevant senior officials who are stuck on the Senate floor right now, whose expertise is needed in the current crisis, is pretty frustrating,” said one senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak openly on the matter.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought an unanimous consent vote on the Senate floor to immediately confirm four nominees, saying their work is vital to achieving U.S. aims in Ukraine.

Scott, who has placed the largest number of holds, has blocked their confirmation, demanding that the Biden administration first take action on an unrelated issue: the Cuban government’s practice of siphoning the salaries of Cuban doctors exported to other Latin American countries.

Menendez accused Scott and other Republicans of undermining the Biden administration’s effort to confront one of the greatest threats to global democracy and diminishing the United States’ capacity to assist the millions of Ukrainian civilians who have been driven from their homes by relentless Russian airstrikes and artillery fire.

“I’m deeply troubled that the junior senator from Florida is once again obstructing the Senate’s responsibility to provide advice and consent on presidential nominees, nominations not only preventing us from fulfilling our constitutional duties, but in this case, moreover, he is single-handedly undermining the ability of the United States government to respond fully to Russia’s brutal invasion,” Menendez said.

“It’s like helping Putin at the end of the day,” he added.

In a Jan. 31 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Scott said he was placing holds on “all relevant State Department nominees” until U.S. President Joe Biden lifts the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) legal immunity so it can be sued in U.S. courts by Cuban doctors who claim the Washington-based international health agency allowed the Cuban government to force them to work in foreign countries and then skim their salaries.

In 2018, four Cuban doctors sued the organization on the grounds that it arranged a medical mission to Brazil, which they characterized as a forced labor scheme that profited the Cuban government. The lawsuit claims that the PAHO “benefited from the forced labor and trafficking of more than 10,000 doctors and health professionals in Brazil from 2013 to the present.”

“President Biden has the power to lift the immunity, and I requested this administration to do so multiple times, but they shamefully declined,” Scott said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “Victims of trafficking deserve to see their alleged abusers in court, and PAHO should never be able to hide behind claims. I will be blocking all relevant State Department nominees.”

“Senator Scott has been fighting against human trafficking, which PAHO is helping enable, for years and will continue to do so,”  McKinley Lewis, the communications director for Scott, told Foreign Policy.

He asserted that Democrats shoulder the blame for the delay in nominations and an Ukraine aid package being passed.

“If these nominees were truly critical, [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer could have filed cloture on them and held a confirmation vote this week—or at any time since their approval by the Foreign Relations Committee,” he added.

It’s unclear whether Biden has the legal authority to strip PAHO of its legal immunity as an international organization.

However, it’s also unclear how the blocked nominees are relevant to the Cuban case. The nominees Scott blocked on Wednesday are James O’Brien, nominated for a new position as the State Department’s sanctions coordinator; C.S. Eliot Kang, the nominee for assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation; and Julieta Valls Noyes, the nominee for assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Noyes, a seasoned career diplomat, is a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States as refugees from Cuba. The senior State Department official said her confirmation is sorely needed as the United States grapples with helping European countries deal with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. The war has driven more than 3 million refugees out of the country, according to the United Nations.

Senate Republicans are also holding up the confirmation of Erin Magee, Biden’s pick to be deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, with responsibility for Europe and Eurasia.

Marshall supported blocking Magee’s confirmation but did not provide a justification. But Menendez said he understood the hold was related to Marshall’s crusade to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins.

Other key nominees who remain blocked include Laura Holgate, who was nominated as ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Mallory Stewart, who was first nominated for assistant secretary for arms control in early July 2021; and Sarah Margon, a former human rights advocate nominated as assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor. Beth Van Schaack, the State Department’s U.S. ambassador at large for global criminal justice, had been blocked until last week. She was confirmed on March 15.

In December 2021, Holgate was confirmed separately as the U.S. ambassador to the United NationsVienna office. But she needs to be confirmed separately to assume the role of U.S. representative to the IAEA.

The delay in her appointment comes as the United States faces two major challenges at the IAEA: ensuring the security of two major nuclear sites in Ukraine that have been seized by Russian forces, including the Chernobyl nuclear reactor facility, and overseeing the implementation of an Iran nuclear deal, which is in the final days of negotiation.

“The nominees are just hostages,” said Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, who added that Holgate is “collateral damage” in a long-standing practice of blocking confirmations to apply pressure on the administration to offer concessions on often unrelated matters.

Former senior diplomats have long warned that Biden’s foreign-policy agenda during his first year in office was being harmed by the lack of confirmed senior officials in place at the State Department and other government agencies. Republicans blamed Biden for being slow to nominate candidates to senior posts. (The U.S. ambassador post to Ukraine, for example, remains conspicuously empty.) In turn, the Biden administration and Democratic allies in the Senate have blamed Republicans for sweeping blockades of State Department nominees.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have made a practice of holding up a president’s foreign-policy nominees to exert pressure on a specific policy disagreement as Republicans and Democrats cycle through the White House. But Democratic lawmakers say Republican senators have taken the practice too far since Biden took office, hobbling the State Department’s ability to run effectively.

For instance, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz held up dozens of State Department nominees for months in 2021 over a disagreement with the White House on its decision to withhold some sanctions on Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project. Cruz agreed to release those holds in late December 2021 after he struck a deal with Democrats to hold a vote on his bill that would have unleashed tougher sanctions on people and entities involved in the pipeline. The Senate narrowly voted against the bill in January, though the following month, Biden authorized further sanctions on the pipeline after Russia sent troops into Ukraine.

Kennedy said the hold on Holgate has created a bizarre spectacle of having a “U.S. ambassador on hand but not able to do anything.”

“These are really important issues,” she added, noting the IAEA’s role in monitoring nuclear weapons developments from Iran and North Korea to Ukraine. “Every day, we see the reporting on the Chernobyl power reactor, the Zaporizhzhia power actor. It’s extraordinary to me that we have an ambassador out in Vienna doing her job but unable to be in the seat of the Board of Governors, the IAEA’s main decision-making body.”

On Thursday, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey invoked unanimous consent on the Senate floor to get Holgate confirmed. Scott blocked the move, reiterating his demands over Cuban doctors.

“We need an ambassador to draw attention to the danger of Russian forces, especially holding Ukraine’s nuclear operations at gunpoint,” Markey said after Scott’s objection. “We need an ambassador to demand Russia accept the IAEA offer to establish a presence in Ukraine to ensure the continued safe operation of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.”

Scott’s hold, he added, is “partisan politicization of nuclear proliferation of nuclear safety at a time where were seeing a peril that we have not seen in 50 years in the United States or the planet.”

Update, March 17, 2022: This article was updated to include comment from Sen. Rick Scott’s spokesperson.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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

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