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Democrats gear up to push Biden diplomatic nominees past Republican blocks

“This chamber under this leadership is not going to tolerate a few members who want to muck up the confirmation process to make a scene,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks on the Capitol on Sept. 14, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks at the Capitol on Sept. 14.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

WASHINGTON — Frustrated Senate Democrats are working with the Biden administration to crank up the speed to confirm key diplomatic nominees who have been blocked by a pair of Senate Republicans.

With more than 80 Biden State Department nominees awaiting confirmation and a paltry 15 confirmed so far, high-level vacancies are becoming more and more conspicuous as the administration enters its eighth month in office. Dozens of would-be ambassadors, special envoys and assistant secretaries are among those unable to start work until the Senate acts.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., threatened Thursday to keep the chamber in session for late-night and possible weekend sessions. He accused the two Republicans of “deliberately making the American people less safe in a vain and futile effort to enhance their political fortunes.”

“This chamber under this leadership is not going to tolerate a few members who want to muck up the confirmation process to make a scene,” Schumer said as he teed up votes on seven delayed State Department nominees.

Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas have been using the power granted to all senators to slow confirmations to try to force President Joe Biden’s hand on national security.

Cruz for months has put holds on all State Department nominees until the administration imposes certain sanctions over Russia’s building of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe. Hawley, in an even more sweeping demand, last week announced that he would hold up all State and Defense department nominees until Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan resign.

“Leaders take responsibility for their failures,” Hawley said on the Senate floor, citing the Biden administration’s messy exit from Afghanistan. “There must be a new start.”

Getting Republican cooperation in approving about 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions throughout the federal government has been a broad challenge for the Biden administration and its predecessors.

Over the years, the average confirmation time doubled from the Reagan administration to the Trump administration, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

“This is not just an inside-baseball question,” said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “These are the people that are actually supposed to be dealing with our most important challenges as a country, from the withdrawal from Afghanistan to getting out rental assistance to people who are economically in trouble to dealing with the pandemic to climate change.”

The problem is particularly acute at the State Department, which has more Senate-confirmed political appointees than any other — nearly 150 more than the Defense Department. So far, the Senate has confirmed only two of Biden’s nominees to serve as U.S. ambassadors.

Individual senators like Hawley and Cruz can’t permanently block nominees. But they can use Senate rules to force procedural steps that are skipped when all senators agree but take days to complete if anyone objects.

“What they are doing is pouring sand in the machine, but it is still possible to move folks forward,” Stier said. “You have to eat up a lot of your clock, and there are a lot of other competing interests in attempting to do that, including other nominees.”

Hawley and Cruz, both of whom are considered potential 2024 presidential candidates, have worked to beef up their foreign policy credentials while serving as vocal counterweights to Biden’s foreign policy agenda.

In a statement to NBC News, Hawley said he was seeking accountability for “Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal that killed 13 American service members and left hundreds of Americans stranded.”

“Democrats might think accountability is a ‘waste of time,’ but they’re wrong. They’ve got a lot to answer for and this is the least we can do,” Hawley said.

Cruz’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Of the more than 80 State Department nominees awaiting confirmation, more than 60 have already gotten through the first step: approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to records provided by the State Department. Many were approved unanimously, meaning no Republicans objected at the committee level.

The vacancies have been a source of increasing frustration at the State Department, within the White House and among U.S. diplomats, many of whom say the U.S. government must conduct high-stakes diplomacy with one hand tied behind its back.

“For our national security, I respectfully urge the Senate and this committee to move as swiftly as possible to consider and confirm all pending nominees and to address what is a significant disruption in our national security policymaking,” Blinken told the Foreign Relations Committee this month.

The vacancies have already had real-world effects. When the U.S. began its hectic withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was no Senate-confirmed ambassador to the country where it had been at war for two decades; the embassy in Kabul instead relied on a former foreign service officer called in from retirement to lead the mission. The senior position overseeing that region of Asia was also vacant.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in August, longtime U.S. diplomat John Bass was in the middle of teaching a class for future ambassadors at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute when he learned that he was being sent to Kabul immediately. Bass, who had been ambassador to Afghanistan once before, left mid-lecture to prepare to head to Kabul to assist with the evacuation, a person with knowledge of the event said.

The American Foreign Service Association, the main labor union representing U.S. diplomats, said last week that it would ramp up calls to address “the over-politicization of the processes” of confirming foreign policy professionals.

“The delays are no longer an inconvenience — they are becoming a threat to our national security,” the union said.

While the Biden administration’s troubles getting diplomats confirmed reflect a growing partisan stalemate in Congress, it isn’t the first time vacant positions have weighed on national security.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks, only 57 percent of the top 123 Senate-confirmed positions had been filled at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department combined, excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys. The report warned that in addition to the delays caused by the prolonged election, the slow Senate confirmation process had left the U.S. vulnerable.