The Senate just confirmed two new United States ambassadors to crucial posts — Iraq and Egypt.
Two down, 49 to go.
A backlog of nominees for ambassador positions across the world has been gathering dust in the Senate, including in countries and offices that Obama administration officials consider vital to U.S. security interests.
Democrats have accused Republicans of blocking nominees favored by President Obama for political reasons. Republicans reject the claim. But following Thursday’s high-profile vote on Egypt and Iraq, there remain 49 ambassador-level nominations awaiting Senate confirmation.
Within that backlog, the posts include the State Department, USAID and development banks, as well as 28 countries for which Congress has not yet confirmed a U.S. ambassador. The White House isn’t happy. Dozens of nominations sent to the Senate have waited an average of 262 days for confirmation, according to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Administration officials and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., say Senate Republicans are holding posts hostage and putting U.S. national security at risk.
“Never — to my knowledge — has this body, as a political strategy, obstructed — en masse — the appointments of noncontroversial career Foreign Service officers who have worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations,” Menendez said on the floor last week. “Simply stated, the backlog is weakening America’s role in the world.”
A spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the obstructionism claim “simply ridiculous.”
“The Senate has been processing nominees on a regular basis,” spokesman Don Stewart said Thursday, citing the Senate’s clearance of the ambassadors to Egypt and Iraq, as well as recent confirmations for ambassadors to Djibouti, Jordan, and Peru. “But [Senate Mahjority Leader Harry] Reid schedules the floor and he’s been prioritizing judges over bundlers” — a derogatory term to describe wealthy political supporters who raise bundles of campaign cash from many donors.
Stewart said the Senate can’t act on nominations until they pass the Democrat-controlled Foreign Relations Committee, noting that the nominations for ambassadors to Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Honduras, Argentina, Korea, Algeria, and Vietnam only made it out of the committee to await Senate confirmation this past week. The administration, he noted, hasn’t named a nominee for Romania, and has yet to finish paperwork for newly nominated ambassadors to France, Ireland, and Slovenia. “That’s an issue for the administration/committee — not ‘obstruction,’” he said.
Republicans contend that Reid has held an iron grip on legislative proceedings after he went “nuclear” and enacted a rules change to overcome filibusters of many Obama nominees. They’ve also pointed to a few Obama ambassadorial choices with strong political ties to the president but weaker diplomatic credentials, such as Noah Bryson Mamet, the nominee for Argentina, who according to The Washington Post, admitted he had never been to the country and was not fluent in Spanish. Mamet raised more than half a million dollars for Obama. His nomination cleared the committee this week.
But many of the nominees needing confirmation are career diplomats and made it out of the committee months ago with unanimous or near unanimous bipartisan support, and there is little precedent for the sheer number gathering dust while waiting for floor time.
In the past, such nominations were often confirmed en masse, without debate, as Menendez noted in his June floor speech. While the ambassadorial positions are politically appointed and confirmed by Congress, beyond the confirmation proceedings, diplomats are more or less shielded from partisan politics back home to allow them to focus on representing and protecting American interests abroad.
Yet the hyper-partisanship that emerged from the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, has helped stymie the State Department on the Hill. As Benghazi investigations continue in the House, the rancor is unlikely to recede before the November elections despite growing conflicts in or near key U.S. allies.
Currently, the U.S doesn’t have an ambassador to Kuwait. That nomination has been waiting for confirmation by the Senate for more than 200 days, according to Menendez. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has overtaken major territory in Iraq and the conflict is escalating into regional warfare, with Syria launching air strikes in Iraq, Iran and the U.S. aiding Iraqi troops but jockeying for influence with the government, and neighboring countries like Kuwait and Jordan being overrun with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Kuwaiti donors have been tied to ISIS, and its emir recently made a trip to Iran, Menendez noted.
As U.S. counterterrorism efforts pivot to Africa, a quarter of all American ambassador postings on the continent await Senate confirmation, according to Rice.
The Senate has yet to send a top U.S. diplomat to Niger, Cameroon, and Mauritania, several of Nigeria’s regional partners in the fight against the terrorist organization Boko Haram. Almost three months ago, Boko Haram stepped up its terrorism campaign by kidnapping hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls. While the world’s attention has faded, the kidnappings have continued, with the group taking advantage of Nigeria’s porous borders.
Even Korean tensions have not seemed to spark urgency. On Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range projectiles off its coast in the direction of Japan, following threats by Kim Jong Un to respond to an American film featuring a plot to kill him. The nomination for U.S. ambassador to South Korea — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s chief of staff and longtime Obama foreign policy aide Mark Lippert — just made it out of committee this week. It was a relatively short time from official nomination to committee for Lippert, but he had been rumored for the post for months.
What We're Following See More »
"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.
"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."
"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.
"Donald Trump on Wednesday parted ways with Rick Wiley, his national political director, just six weeks after the Republican operative joined the campaign." Wiley joined just six weeks ago, as Trump said he would be a "tremendous asset as we enter the final phase." But yesterday, Trump said in a statement that "hired on a short-term basis as a consultant."