Democratic leaders are in active negotiations with Republican holdouts to break a GOP-led blockade and confirm several of President Joe Biden’s ambassador nominees before the end of the year.
The stalemate that has effectively halted foreign policy confirmations is driven by two firebrand conservatives who have slow-walked Biden’s nominees in an effort to portray the president as weak on Russia and capitalize on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — both of whom are potential GOP presidential candidates in 2024 — have drawn stern rebukes from Democrats as well as some of their fellow Republicans over their monthslong holdup of national security picks.
With 54 ambassador nominees lagging on the Senate floor and only a handful of legislative days remaining before the new year, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is looking to strike a deal that would allow the upper chamber to confirm many of them this month.
But while Cruz told POLITICO he is in “active” talks with Democratic leaders to lift a “number” of his holds on nominees in exchange for a Senate vote on sanctioning Nord Stream 2 — the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline — it’s less clear what Hawley’s price for relenting might be.
“Those are complex dances that occur to get to a point,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “I want to see ambassadors confirmed. We need those people in-country obviously.”
Cruz has snarled State Department nominees since February in protest of Biden’s decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2. Hawley has blocked certain State Department and Pentagon nominees since September as he pushes for heads to roll in the Biden administration over the Afghanistan pullout. Although Schumer has slammed them for the delays, he hasn’t initiated the painful floor process required to push Biden’s nominees past the two conservatives.
Cruz and Hawley have drawn their share of critics, inviting allegations that they’re sabotaging Biden’s foreign policy for their own presidential ambitions, with the goal of riling up the GOP base ahead of the 2024 race.
Both senators are viewed as potential White House contenders; Cruz has already run for president once before, and Hawley has built up a national profile among conservatives during his short tenure in the Senate. Hawley fueled his detractors’ claims of political posturing when he declared on the Senate floor last week: “If I’m still on the floor doing this in 2023, so be it, 2024, so be it, until somebody is held accountable.”
In the meantime, battle lines over a potential year-end deal are already emerging.
According to a senior congressional aide, the double-digit list of holds Cruz has offered to lift includes nominees for senior positions in the Treasury Department, State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Cruz’s offer to lift some of his holds in exchange for a vote on Nord Stream 2 sanctions isn’t new. Earlier this month, he said he would back off of a handful of nominees if the Senate voted on an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that imposes stricter penalties for the pipeline. The Senate ended up ditching the amendment process for the bill, so the chamber never voted on it.
The Texas Republican described the ongoing talks as “productive” and said his staff has been “going around and around with Schumer’s staff.” Hawley, too, has been approached by Democratic leaders about striking a deal to pull back some of his holds, according to a person familiar with the outreach.
But there are already signs that a breakthrough isn’t a sure bet. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) publicly rejected Cruz’s offer, saying he should lift all of his holds, “not just a little here and a little there,” adding: “He’s got to give it all up.”
“We’re at the end of the year,” Menendez added. “Otherwise all these people have to be sent back [through the committee] and we have to start the process all over.”
Under the Senate’s rules, nominations would have to return to their committees of jurisdiction in the new year, which could cause even further delays.
When asked about Menendez’s all-or-nothing ultimatum, Cruz responded: “Well if that’s what he says, then he’s not going to get any of his ambassadors.”
Other GOP senators not named Cruz or Hawley have their own holds on ambassador-designates. For example, Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have demanded a roll-call vote on Nicholas Burns, Biden’s pick to be U.S. ambassador to China, over their claims that his posture toward Beijing is weak.
Under the Senate’s rules, any one senator can prevent swift action on a nominee. Traditionally, senators have allowed non-controversial nominations to hit the Senate floor and be confirmed unanimously so that the chamber can use its valuable floor time on other matters. But Cruz and Hawley have thrown up roadblocks that force Schumer to find floor time for the nominees.
Schumer has vowed to schedule weekend and late-night sessions in order to confirm the foreign-policy nominations, and has accused Republicans of creating a national security vulnerability by preventing the Biden administration from having its personnel in place. But the majority leader hasn’t taken actions yet to make the process painful for Republicans, as Democrats call on him to play hardball with the GOP.
“My worry is that this is not going away, not just on ambassadors. There’s no nominees moving,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) lamented. “I mean, everybody’s got a hold on every agency. So it just doesn’t feel like the rules, as they stand now, work for nominees.”
A bipartisan group of senators met Monday night to discuss potential changes to Senate rules that could make the chamber run more efficiently — a reflection of the bipartisan frustration over the slow pace of confirmations. The Senate has confirmed just nine of Biden’s ambassador nominees, a historically low number and less than a quarter of those confirmed by this point in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said that while he has heard of some “innovative” and “creative” ideas, Republicans are not going to engage in conversations around gutting the legislative filibuster. And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who participated in the bipartisan meeting, told POLITICO that the gathering was not specifically focused on ambassadors.
With so little time left before the ambassador nominees have to go back to square one, Schumer’s best bet is to strike a deal with Cruz and Hawley, and potentially others who are standing in the way.
“Something’s going to have to break by the end of the year,” Murphy said.