- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - If you wear combat fatigues to work, then your nomination is almost sure to sail through the Senate. If not, you’re likely in for a long wait.

In just a week, senators confirmed Army Lt. Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. to be the next top American commander in Afghanistan. By contrast, President Barack Obama’s choices for several other government positions are being held up, including his picks for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, high-level positions at the State and Treasury departments, ambassadors in 10 countries and myriad other posts.

Delaying the president’s nominees gives the candidates who are running to replace him or for re-election in the Senate a chance to score political points - and both Republicans and Democrats do it.

Democrats have blamed Senate Republicans for what Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called a “blatant strategy of obstruction” aimed at undermining Obama’s agenda in his final year in office. That’s not a bad outcome for many Republicans who view Obama’s policies as destructive.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and two Democrats are blocking Dr. Robert Califf from being confirmed as FDA chief. The agency has been without a commissioner for almost a year.

Sanders, along with Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have cited Califf’s close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which they claim hamstrings his ability to deal with the opioid addiction crisis, and a lack of commitment to lowering drug prices as their reasons. The FDA announced steps this week to address opioid addiction, but it wasn’t enough for the senators to lift their holds.

Likewise, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is holding up Califf’s nomination over the FDA’s approval last year of genetically modified salmon.

Several of Obama’s nominees have been caught up in the grinder of the GOP presidential campaign. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, placed a blanket hold on all nominees for State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation, due in part to his opposition to the landmark nuclear deal Obama and other nations brokered with Iran last year.

At least 10 State nominees - including the ambassadors to Mexico, the Bahamas, Luxembourg, Myanmar, Norway and Sweden along with the department’s No. 3 official and its legal adviser - are being blocked, most of them by Cruz.

Azita Raji, Obama’s choice to be U.S. ambassador to Sweden, was nominated more than 15 months ago - in October 2014.

Though Cruz has been campaigning in New Hampshire, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, came to the floor this week to object for Cruz when several Democrats attempted to try and move the nominations along.

“That isn’t helpful, that isn’t constructive and that isn’t a wise use of that tactic to hold up positions for that long for no reason tied necessarily to that individual’s fitness for the job or the foreign policy objectives of the United States,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said earlier this week

Even if Cruz hadn’t exercised his senatorial prerogative, Roberta Jacobson’s nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Mexico would still be stalled. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another presidential hopeful, has objected to Jacobson because of her role in negotiating the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is maintaining a pledge to block nominees to the federal Office of Personnel Management. Vitter’s objections are rooted in his longstanding effort to end the federal health care subsidy for lawmakers and their staffs. Obama nominated Beth Cobert to be director of the embattled agency, which is trying to improve cybersecurity measures after hackers stole the Social Security numbers, health histories and other highly sensitive data belonging to more than 20 million people last year.

A series of nominees are stuck in the Senate Banking Committee, including Obama’s to fill the post of undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Adam Szubin is as a career civil servant who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I’ve been called on many occasions by (Treasury) Secretary Jack Lew talking about how this man needs to have his assignment filled,” Reid said recently. “He’s expressed to me the importance of this job in trying to slow up (the Islamic State extremist group) and their financial network and other terrorism activities around the world.”

The speed with which Nicholson’s nomination was approved illustrates the deference military officers receive when they are nominated for important posts, particularly wartime commands. The Defense Department announced on Jan. 27 that Obama had chosen Nicholson to replace Gen. John F. Campbell as the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The next day Nicholson appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing. One week later he was confirmed by the full Senate.

Nominees for civilian posts at the Defense Department, meanwhile, haven’t cleared the Senate. Among them are Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, Jennifer O’Connor to be the department’s general counsel and Brad Carson to be undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Last month, the Senate confirmed Obama’s last remaining nominee to a U.S. appeals court, seating Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo after a wait of more than 400 days.


AP Diplomatic Correspondent Matthew Lee contributed to this report.


Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rplardner

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