Congress

Top priority for lame-duck Senate: Vote on Obama nominations

Turkey finally got an U.S. Ambassador in August 2014.
Turkey finally got an U.S. Ambassador in August 2014. MCT

State Department officials and Washington’s diplomatic community are pressing the Senate to address a backlog of ambassadorial nominations during Congress’ post-election lame-duck session.

They fear that if the Republicans win control of the Senate, the already sluggish pace of voting on President Barack Obama’s nominees will worsen over the next two years.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the elections,” said Kristen Fernekes, a spokeswoman for the 17,000-member American Foreign Service Association. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the lame duck. We’re deeply concerned about this becoming the new normal, and we don’t want to see it take 400, 300, 200 days to get people to their posts.”

Senate Democratic leaders say dealing with hundreds of pending nominations – ambassadorial, judicial and administration – will be a major thrust of the lame-duck session when Congress returns to Washington Nov. 12.

But confronted with a legislative to-do list that also includes keeping the federal government funded beyond Dec.11 to avert a shutdown, Senate Democratic officials concede that lawmakers won’t plow through all the nominations during the lame-duck session.

That means those who aren’t confirmed before the 113th Congress adjourns would have to be re-nominated when the 114th Congress convenes in January, a lengthy process that would involve hearings and committee votes as well as Senate floor action.

“Time is a finite commodity,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “We’ll do as many as we can, regardless” of the outcome of the election.

Democrats and several political analysts foresee difficulties for the White House in getting its nominees confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who stands to become the chamber’s majority leader if his party wins control in the coming elections, has vowed to restore so-called “regular order” to the Senate, a process in which legislation and nominations go through committees before being debated and voted on by the full Senate.

But political observers predict that a Republican-run Senate would slow the pace of addressing Obama’s nominees, already at a trickle, even further.

Currently, 47 ambassadorial nominees are awaiting confirmation for assignments in 54 countries such as Argentina, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Norway, Rwanda and Jamaica. Of the 47 nominees, eight are awaiting confirmation hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The vacancies spawn from partisan feuding between Senate Democrats and Republicans and from complaints that Obama has nominated an unusually high percentage of political supporters rather than career diplomats for ambassadorships.

At one point over the summer, more than a quarter of the world’s countries didn’t have a U.S. ambassador. Just before adjourning in August and September, senators confirmed 10 ambassadors, including for Sierra Leone, an epicenter of the Ebola virus outbreak, and for Turkey, a key country in the fight against the Islamic State.

Now State Department and diplomatic officials are pressing the Senate to take up the rest of the backlog.

“The vast majority of our nominees could be confirmed quickly in one en bloc vote just like military nominees as soon as the Senate returns to Washington,” Alec Gerlach, a State Department spokesman, said Wednesday.

That request could face stiff resistance.

In July, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tried to move a block of ambassadorial nominees to the Senate floor. But Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., objected in protest of Reid’s change of Senate rules making it difficult for senators to filibuster administration and judicial nominations.

As to whether Enzi would object to en bloc nominations during the lame-duck session, Daniel Head, an Enzi spokesman, said, “The majority leader sets floor votes. We’ll see what the remaining session looks like when we come back into session.”

Republican senators also may want separate votes on individual nominees to show their displeasure over the number of politically connected people Obama has chosen over career diplomats.

Of the 47 nominees awaiting confirmation, 13 are considered political. They have limited international diplomacy experience or worked for the Obama administration or his presidential campaigns.

Historically, presidents have adhered to a “70-30” combination: 70 percent of nominees being career diplomats, 30 percent are political backers.

Since taking office in 2009, 64.8 percent of Obama’s picks have been careerists and 35.2 percent political, according to American Foreign Service Association statistics.

So far in his second term, 58.6 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial nominees are careerists and 41.4 percent political. Of the 47 nominees awaiting full Senate votes or Foreign Relations Committee approval, 13 are political.

To get as many people confirmed as possible during the lame-duck session, State Department officials and the foreign service association have suggested that senators move ahead with the nominations of career diplomats.

“We know that foreign service officers have respect on both sides of the aisle,” Fernekes said. “We would hope as a goodwill gesture that they would at least confirm career nominees.”

The foreign service association has mounted a full-court press. Since July, representatives of the group have spoken with the White House and met with 20 senators – most of them Republicans – in hopes of moving nominations forward.

“We don’t know when the next nation will arise that will be on the nightly news” because of a crisis, Fernekes said. “We need to have fully staffed embassies.”

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