State Department Nominees Could Be In For Procedural Headache

Robert Menendez warns of making life difficult if questions go unanswered

Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., attend a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the nominations of Brian J. Bulatao and Denise Natali for State Department positions on July 18, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey has made a thinly veiled threat against pending State nominations if the Trump administration is not more responsive to questions about their interactions and agreements with foreign leaders.

“If the administration is unwilling to consult with this committee in a meaningful fashion on vital national security issues, then we must consider all appropriate responses with regards to nominees before this committee,” the Foreign Relations ranking member said at a Wednesday hearing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to testify before the committee next week, for what is likely to be his last such appearance before the retirement of Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee. But Menendez suggested that might not be enough time to get answers about the developments in Helsinki during the meetings between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“Americans and members of this committee deserve to know what the president and foreign autocrats are agreeing to behind closed doors,” Menendez said.

Watch: Trump Says He ‘Misspoke’ on Russian Election Meddling

Senate rules do not allow a minority of senators to block nominations, but given the limited floor time, an objection from Menendez would derail efforts to advance batches of more routine State Department picks.

The comments from Menendez came during a confirmation hearing for the administration’s nominee to oversee day-to-day management at the State Department.

Brian Bulatao, nominated to serve as undersecretary of State for management, told the committee he opposed reported efforts to impose a political litmus test on career officials who may have views critical of the president.

He said he would encourage Foggy Bottom employees who feel their careers have suffered because of their personal political views to report their concerns “to the appropriate channels so that it can be looked at.”

“I don’t believe that using that criteria is the way that we should be selecting or determining people’s roles in the department,” Bulatao said during his confirmation hearing.

If confirmed, Bulatao would be the third-ranking official at State. He previously worked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the CIA’s chief operating officer while Pompeo was director.

In March, House Democrats released portions of emails obtained from whistleblowers from senior Trump administration officials discussing with one another and prominent conservative activists their desire to “clean house” at Foggy Bottom by demoting, marginalizing and retaliating against career civil servants they did not believe backed Trump’s agenda.

“We have each heard from numerous career employees who have alleged that they have suffered adverse consequences based on inappropriate considerations,” said Menendez, D-N.J. and House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., wrote in an April letter to the State Department’s inspector general, asking him to investigate the allegations.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she was disturbed by news reports of at least one State political appointee searching staffs’ social media pages “to determine their personal leanings.”

The New Hampshire Democrat pressed Bulatao to promise he would “take active measures” to weed out any such political litmus tests if he is confirmed, which he agreed to.

“The kinds of things we need to be looking for are intellect, expertise, judgment, teamwork,” he said. “That’s how we should be selecting our people.”

Bulatao was formally nominated a month ago following the withdrawal of the administration’s first nominee for the job, Eric Ueland, a longtime Republican Senate budget staffer who now has a senior role at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Though he was nominated in 2017 and then re-nominated again in January, Ueland never secured a committee confirmation vote amid bipartisan concerns about then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s high-profile effort to significantly restructure Foggy Bottom and reduce the payroll there.

Bulatao had a much warmer reception from the committee on Wednesday, suggesting he will receive a committee vote.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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