Ted Cruz is blocking diplomats’ confirmation, and it has nothing to do with their qualifications

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The junior senator from Texas has become the public face of the State Department’s troubles and proudly claims responsibility for the blockades of a slew of senior officials. Cruz is trying to pressure the government on a specific point of Russian policy, a campaign that other Republicans say has been fruitless and that led to a fiery screaming match with Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. relations.

Cruz doesn’t seem willing to budge. “I look forward to lifting the grips once they impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 required by federal law,” he told CNN.

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A poisonous concoction of personality politics, partisanship and political greatness has turned the often tedious nominee approval process into a politicized struggle, one that strains Democratic leadership in the Senate as it juggles priorities, including President Joe Biden’s pursuit of infrastructure legislation, and the tight deadline of an approaching summer break.

Dozens in line

Six months after Biden’s inauguration, only six State Department candidates have been confirmed on the Senate floor. About 60 nominees have been waiting for confirmation for months. Now Cruz has effectively barred the Senate from voting on senior department nominees unless Democrats take the time-consuming steps necessary to overcome one filibuster for every nomination, leaving about a dozen offices with no confirmed leadership.

As violence escalates in Afghanistan and the risk of a Taliban takeover looming, the Bureau of Central and South Asian Affairs is headed by an acting deputy secretary. With double crises in the backyard of the US destabilize Cuba and Haiti, as the government grapples with an increasingly aggressive China — accusing it of devastating ransomware attacks — and as the White House confronts recalcitrant Iran, all of the offices managing those regions are also staffed by interim leaders.

While senior career officials serve in acting positions, the delay in gaining confirmed leadership is impacting the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda and how quickly it can be implemented in some places, congressional officials, lawmakers and government officials said.

Government officials point out that the confirmed nominees who are in a waiting pattern on the Senate floor have received overwhelming bipartisan support — even unanimous support for some — and say this shows the delays are political rather than quality. of the candidates.

“It is critical to our national security and foreign policy that the Senate moves forward with these qualified, experienced nominees as quickly as possible,” said a senior government official.

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The standoff is also contributing to a growing sense of frustration and mistrust among foreign policy leaders in Congress, who have worked down the aisle in the past. And with the Senate recess in August, government officials fear the situation will get worse if no action is taken in the coming weeks.

“We want to have people — especially in really hot spots, to address issues,” Menendez told CNN when asked if he was hopeful that more State Department nominees would speak before the senators head to the polls. August recess.

There are a number of factors at play, six sources familiar with the process told CNN: Cruz’s grip; Senate leadership does not prioritize State Department nominees; Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who use individual nominees as leverage to make demands of the government; lawmakers who seem to be slowing candidates down, claiming they need more time to review the nominees’ files; and an inability to properly get through some of those files.

But of that long list, it’s the Texas legislature who has created the biggest roadblock of all, sources on both sides of the aisle said, pointing to Cruz’s hold on State Department nominees to pressure the government over the move. Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The government has waived sanctions against the pipeline company and the German CEO in an effort to rebuild ties with Germany, a vital ally in several foreign policy priorities. The Trump administration has also decided not to impose sanctions. US officials and outside analysts say that while the pipeline is nearing completion, the Biden administration’s repeated threats that the waivers could be lifted at any time are enough to prevent it from becoming operational in the near term: companies that would close the pipeline insure or operate, are not likely to take that risk.

‘He is right’

Still, Cruz wants sanctions. Secretary of State “Tony Blinken is happy to point out that the lifting of sanctions may be revoked,” Cruz told CNN. ‘He is right. And so they can lift the grip.’

Republicans personally admit that they are slow-moving State Department nominees to force concessions from the government — and also that they are frustrated with Cruz’s campaign, which they view as pointless as the White House won’t budge to its Nord Stream policy.

Menendez expressed his own frustration at Cruz’s maneuver at a committee meeting in late June. The New Jersey Democrat told Cruz he had never seen a situation like this in his 14 years on the committee.

Cruz’s blockades on nominees who have reached the Senate floor are “counterproductive to our collective cause of furthering United States foreign policy and national security,” Menendez said. He accused Cruz of mocking and defaming the committee’s history, possibly for the sake of presidential ambition, which sparked a furious defense from the Texas Republican as the two repeatedly shut each other down.

“Maybe it’s your presidential aspirations, I don’t know, but you’re turning to political ends,” Menendez told Cruz toward the end of their row, his voice raised in apparent anger. “You watched every nominee. Every nominee! I’ve never seen that before.”

Cruz broke in loudly: “I did this for a policy that, Mr. Chairman, you supported … that the Biden administration deliberately undermined and gave a gift to Putin and Russia.”

The sparring came to a halt when another senator intervened to suggest they all tackle something easier, like the notoriously thorny debate over a president’s war powers.

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Because of Cruz’s hold, there are now more than a dozen nominees for senior State Department positions that can only be confirmed if Senate Leader Chuck Schumer appeals for cloture, a procedural move to break a filibuster, the debate. and move to a vote that requires 30 hours of debate, a committee member told CNN.

Going through that process for each nominee would consume “an insane amount of floor time that would historically never be used for nominations,” said a Senate aide, “and this is happening while he’s trying to get infrastructure and every other important piece of legislation.”

It’s a sign of how politicized the confirmation process has become, said a Democratic Senate official. “The heist shows how the Senate doesn’t work the way it used to in the past. Everyone is trying to get something they want to get a simple nomination through,” the aide said.

There’s some frustration on Capitol Hill that Schumer isn’t prioritizing State Department nominees on the floor, congressional staffers told CNN, but also sympathy for the New York Democrat’s bondage as he faces a ticking clock and the impending summer break.

The final weeks of July will be critical in determining how dire this situation will become, State Department officials explained. If the nominees don’t get votes before the senators leave for their summer break, it’s unlikely that any of them won’t be able to start work until sometime in the fall.

As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee processes more nominations — holding a hearing Tuesday for three more State Department candidates — more nominees are piling up to take to the Senate floor, along with other nominations, including judicial nominations.

“We hope that some Republicans in the Senate will stop using time-consuming delaying tactics to delay the confirmation process — even though many nominees have received strong bipartisan support — so that these officials can help restore our country’s reputation around the world and to advocate for American interests abroad,” the senior government official said.

Senate officials say there could be a deal with Cruz before lawmakers go out of town on recess, but it’s not clear how that could be.

White House and State Department officials have been in touch with Cruz and his office, acknowledging that closing a deal with him is the only way to expedite the process. So far, their efforts have been unsuccessful, they told CNN.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.

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