Schumer moves to break Cruz’s vise on diplomatic nominations

Texas Republican has been blocking nominees over Biden’s decision to waive sanctions over Russian pipeline

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has pledged to keep in place his blockade on nominees until the president imposes sanctions on those foreign entities assisting in the construction and regulatory approval process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has pledged to keep in place his blockade on nominees until the president imposes sanctions on those foreign entities assisting in the construction and regulatory approval process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 24, 2021 at 2:54pm

The Senate worked the late shift Thursday, holding over a half dozen roll call votes on senior State Department nominees who had been blocked by a single Republican senator from Texas.

None of the stalled diplomatic nominees were controversial. In a less partisan climate, they would have been swiftly confirmed weeks or months ago, saving senators a lot of time and irritation — and allowing the nominees to start work pursuing key U.S. foreign policy goals on China, Russia, arms sales and climate change.

“An alarming number of posts essential for our national security remain vacant because a handful of Republicans have decided to hijack the confirmation process and put a hold on not just a few but on many critical nominees,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Thursday.

Schumer had been urged previously by fellow Democrats and outside experts to use his power to keep the Senate in session on nights and even weekends to break through the GOP holds, largely by Sen. Ted Cruz, and force votes on the nominations.

“Today, we are going to have to take the long way to move forward with seven of the nominees currently on hold,” Schumer said. “If the irrational stonewalling by Republicans of these noncontroversial nominees continues, we may need to take this tedious exercise again and a greater magnitude.”

The Senate confirmed, by an overwhelming 72-14 vote, Daniel Kritenbrink’s nomination to serve as assistant secretary of State for East Asia. Cloture was also invoked — by wide margins  — on the nominations of five other assistant secretaries of State for Europe and Eurasia, Africa, political-military affairs, international narcotics and law enforcement, and oceans and international environmental affairs. Final confirmation votes could come as soon as next week.

That the Senate had to spend hours — staying until nearly 10 p.m. — to process the nominations of just a small handful of dozens of President Joe Biden’s nominees for senior State Department positions and ambassadorships is because Cruz has been trying to make a point about his disagreement with Biden’s decision to waive sanctions otherwise required by Congress on the construction of a controversial underwater gas pipeline in Europe.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline — construction of which Moscow says is complete, though it has yet to begin operating — is widely opposed in Congress out of concern Russia will use its export of natural gas into Germany and other parts of Europe for “energy blackmail.” Critics argue Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to extort geopolitical concessions from European capitals while simultaneously denying Ukraine the billions of dollars in annual fees it presently earns from allowing Russian gas to transect its territory into Europe through an older pipeline.

Cruz has taken his opposition much further than any other lawmaker, repeatedly pledging to keep in place his blockade on State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development nominees until Biden imposes sanctions backed by Congress on those foreign entities assisting in the construction and regulatory approval process of the pipeline.

Cruz control

In Thursday floor remarks, Cruz was unapologetic about his decision to hold up the nominees and showed no sign of embarrassment over being the cause of his colleagues having to stay late into the night.

“Once Nord Stream 2 goes online, it will become a dominant source of energy for Europe,” the Texas Republican said. “In just the last week, it has become clear that Putin has been turning down gas exports to Europe to coerce our allies into dropping opposition to Nord Stream 2. The blackmail is open and it is brazen.”

But Cruz has also shown himself capable of being chastened.

Amid worry in Washington over the terrorism and regional stability implications of the Taliban’s August takeover of Afghanistan, as well as worsening migration challenges at the southern border, Cruz last week permitted the unanimous consent process to be used to confirm the assistant secretaries of State for intelligence and research, South and Central Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. He did refuse, however, to allow the process to be used to confirm a nominee for an assistant USAID administrator position.

There are close to 100 diplomatic and development nominations before the Senate, 24 of which are ready for a floor vote. Work on much of the rest of the nominations is being held up at the Senate Foreign Relations panel due to GOP slow-walking of nominations at the committee level. And while there have been two ambassadors confirmed, only one country ambassador — Mexico — has gotten through the full Senate.

“Whatever view our colleague from Texas has about Nord Stream — and I happen to believe that on the substance, he is right — but this procedure is wretchedly wrong because it puts us at risk in so, so many dimensions,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a floor speech. “Something will happen somewhere in the world where we are not present because one senator decided to hold up that nominee that would have made a difference.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who sits on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, essentially charged Cruz and other GOP lawmakers obstructing the nominees with hypocrisy.

“We have all sorts of Republicans coming down here and savaging the president’s policy on Afghanistan or on China or on Russia, but then at the exact same time taking extraordinary steps to prevent the president from having anybody to actually implement policies toward Afghanistan or Russia or China,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “It’s akin to standing up in a restaurant and complaining about how slow the service is right after you went and barricaded the doors in and out of the kitchen.”

Cruz isn’t the only Republican senator to refuse to allow unanimous consent votes on noncontroversial diplomatic nominees. Last week, Missouri’s Josh Hawley announced he would place holds on all State Department and Pentagon nominees until Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan resign. Hawley disagrees with their decisions around the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Both Hawley and Cruz achieved notoriety in January when they led a handful of their Senate GOP colleagues in objecting to the certification of Biden’s presidential election win.