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Ted Cruz holding up all State Department nominees over Russian pipeline

Thirteen nominees approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in indefinite limbo.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., are seen in the senate subway during a vote in the Capitol on June 10, 2021.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., are seen in the senate subway during a vote in the Capitol on June 10, 2021.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON - The Senate’s push to confirm nominees to critical diplomatic positions has ground to a halt over objections from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is holding up all State Department nominees to pressure the Biden administration over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, four people with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.

Thirteen nominees approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in indefinite limbo as Cruz delays full Senate confirmation in an effort to get the administration to reverse its waiver of sanctions on the company overseeing the pipeline's construction. In most cases, the nominees would fill roles unrelated to U.S. policy toward the pipeline, which would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.

Among those being blocked are Brett Holmgren, awaiting confirmation as assistant secretary of State for intelligence, and Daniel Kritenbrink, tapped for assistant secretary overseeing East Asia and Pacific affairs. Two undersecretaries — some of the most senior roles in the department — are also being held up, including one that oversees human rights and democracy.

A specialist works onboard the Allseas' deep sea pipe laying ship Solitaire to prepare a pipe for Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 13, 2019.Stine Jacobsen / Reuters file

President Joe Biden’s pick for assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement is also among those being delayed. Cruz is also holding up nominees for ambassadorships to a half-dozen African countries, including Somalia, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A Cruz spokesperson referred NBC News to previous reporting about Cruz’s efforts to block State Department nominees, but did not comment on why the senator is holding up positions that are unrelated to the pipeline. The State Department declined to comment.

Cruz previously held up key Biden nominations over his concerns about the pipeline, including CIA Director William Burns and Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon. But the senator ultimately allowed those nominations to proceed after the Biden administration indicated in March that it would slap sanctions on companies building the pipeline.

The State Department did impose sanctions on some Russian ships and entities involved in the pipeline, but waived them on the company behind the pipeline, to the dismay of Republicans and Democrats alike who oppose the nearly complete conduit. The Biden administration said it was in U.S. national security interests to waive the sanctions, which are opposed by U.S. ally Germany.

The project will double Russian gas shipments to Germany while bypassing Ukraine, whose economy relies on fees from gas that transits through the country. Lawmakers from both parties fear that could increase Russia’s leverage over the former Soviet republic.

Other pipeline opponents have not joined Cruz in trying to force the administration’s hand by blocking all nominees, including to critical national security posts. It’s a tactic the senator has used previously, including during a disagreement with the Obama White House over the naming of a State Department inspector general.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Foreign Relations panel, castigated Cruz last week during a committee meeting for blocking nominees.

“Sen. Cruz, this committee has had a long history which you are blackening by virtue of turning the committee’s business for a political purpose,” Menendez said.

Asked by Cruz what purpose that might be, Menendez added: “Maybe it’s your presidential aspirations, I don’t know.”

An individual senator can’t permanently block a nominee, but can use Senate rules to force procedural steps that are often skipped for less controversial picks. That can delay confirmation of those nominees indefinitely given the many priorities competing for valuable, limited time on the Senate floor.

The holds come as the Biden administration has been slow to fill key ambassadorships, lagging behind the pace set by some previous administrations amid delays in vetting and selection. The protracted pace has raised concerns about Biden’s ability to carry out his goal of reasserting U.S. leadership globally, a role that his administration says the former Trump administration had ceded to other nations.

Dan De Luce, Andrea Mitchell and Frank Thorp V contributed.