The need for better communication and consultation between Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill was the theme of the day as President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the State Department, Antony Blinken, pledged to seek input from lawmakers on U.S. foreign policy.
The absence of partisan rancor Tuesday at the Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing of Blinken to be the next secretary of State was notable, particularly coming just two weeks after the siege of the Capitol by a mob of pro-Trump extremists and just prior to the start of the Senate’s second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Democrats lauded Blinken, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Biden, for his qualifications and for his elucidation of the incoming administration’s approach to foreign affairs. As Blinken described the approach, “We’ll show up day-in and day-out, whenever and wherever Americans’ prosperity and security is at stake. We’ll engage the world not as it was, but as it is.”
“You are superbly qualified and prepared to be our next secretary of State,” said incoming Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “You have impressed us all over the years with your intellect, your dedication and your humanity.”
Republicans’ generally warm treatment of Blinken represented a change from his last Senate confirmation hearing in 2014 to be the deputy secretary of State in the final years of the Obama administration. Then, Blinken ultimately won confirmation votes from just two Republicans, neither of whom is still in the Senate.
“I think you’re an outstanding choice. I intend to vote for you,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Trump’s closest Senate confidant and adviser, adding that he hoped Blinken would receive “a good bipartisan vote. I think you deserve it.”
The tenures of the two most recent secretaries of State, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, caused relations between Foggy Bottom and Congress to fall to their lowest point in decades, observed Menendez. Neither secretary was considered on the whole responsive to lawmakers’ questions about Trump’s foreign policy ventures, let alone consultative. Pompeo was particularly dismissive toward congressional oversight attempts.
So lawmakers on both sides of the aisle welcomed Blinken’s assurances Tuesday that he would engage and consult with them beforehand on major foreign policy issues, particularly with regard to reviving the Iran nuclear deal and developing a holistic strategy to cope with the threats posed by China.
“Both the president-elect and I believe that we have to restore Congress’ traditional role as a partner in our foreign policy-making,” Blinken said. “In recent years, across administrations of both parties, Congress’ voice in foreign policy has been diluted and diminished. That doesn’t make the executive branch stronger, it makes our country weaker.”
The former No. 2 State official said that no administration’s foreign policy could be sustained if it doesn’t have “the informed consent of the American people,” which elected lawmakers are the embodiment of. “We can only tackle the most urgent challenges we have if we work together, and I am dedicated to do just that.”
Blinken would not commit under questioning from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., to submitting any future nuclear agreements to the Senate for ratification as a formal treaty. He noted that presidents from both parties have negotiated arms control and nonproliferation pacts as executive agreements for good legal reasons.
“In whatever form they are, my strong commitment to you and to this committee is that we will engage in genuine consultations, not notifications … on the takeoff, not on the landing, so that we can try to work these things out together,” Blinken said.
Blinken also affirmed to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that he disagreed with Pompeo’s decision to address the Republican National Committee last summer in contravention of decades of norms surrounding the non-political position of secretary of State.
“I could not agree more strongly that with regard to the State Department — it has to be, and if I have anything to say about it, will be a nonpartisan institution that is seeking only to advance the national interests,” he said.
A return to bipartisanship?
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has traditionally been more bipartisan than other committees, was deeply divided in the last Congress over Republican members’ general silence about, or acquiescence to, Trump’s abandonment of shared foreign policy positions on the importance of alliances, human rights, standing up to foreign authoritarians, and the benefits of active U.S. leadership during global crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.
But on Tuesday, the leaders of the committee, outgoing Chairman Jim Risch and incoming leader Menendez, even managed a rare moment of bonhomie after the Idaho Republican told the New Jersey Democrat he believed that mutual “kindness and respect” going forward would produce good results for the committee.
Under Risch’s two-year leadership, the Foreign Relations Committee held a historically low number of hearings and even fewer markups of legislation when compared to the track records of his recent predecessors.
Democrats were also upset by Risch’s pushing through Trump nominees with shallow qualifications. The most notorious example of this was the confirmation last summer on a partisan vote of Michael Pack, who shortly after taking over the U.S. Agency for Global Media came under bipartisan condemnation for his efforts to politicize the international journalism produced by the agency, which includes Voice of America.
Risch rhetorically embraced Menendez after the Democrat said he hoped that any Biden administration effort to revive the Iran nuclear agreement included Tehran’s missile program and its pattern of helping local militants destabilize Middle East countries.
“There ain’t a whole lot of daylight between us,” Risch said to Menendez. “We will do better if we all pull the wagon together and I think we’re heading in that direction now.”
Risch said he sees a “very strong interest in seeing as rapidly as possible that the president has in place his national security team."
Menendez told reporters he expects the committee will vote on Blinken’s nomination next Monday.
Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., thanked Blinken for his “willingness to step back in and serve our country.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he agreed with Blinken’s notion that the international community is not very good at organizing itself around a collective common good without U.S. leadership.
“We’re involved in the world because it is good for America, not just good for the world,” Romney said. “I applaud that recognition.”