- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2018

Senate Democrats have for months blamed President Trump for a slew of vacancies on key foreign policy posts, but the administration is now going on the offensive, claiming it was Democrats on Capitol Hill who were blocking confirmation votes for dozens of qualified diplomats whom the White House has nominated in recent months.

The Senate moved Thursday night to confirm Kimberly Breier to be an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, John Richmond to be Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, Karen Williams to be ambassador to Suriname, and Kevin Sullivan to be ambassador to Nicaragua.

The Senate also confirmed Mary Elizabeth Taylor to be an Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, Denise Natali to be an Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Donald Y. Yamamoto to be ambassador to Somalia and Earl Robert Miller to be ambassador to Bangladesh.

The issue was a particular source of frustration for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who vowed upon arriving at Foggy Bottom in May to get the State Department’s “swagger” back and has pushed in the months since to build morale among the department’s rank and file by trying to fill key managerial positions.

Two of the department’s six senior undersecretary of state spots are still vacant, but the administration has moved over the past six months to fill or at least nominate people for a string of key jobs. Mr. Pompeo has also accelerated a drive to name ambassadors to dozens of countries that went unfilled during Mr. Trump’s first year in office.

There are 49 ambassadorial nominees who are waiting for the Senate to hold confirmation votes. While 104 of the total 188 ambassadorial posts have been successfully filled and another 35 are still without a nominee, the issue of the 49 languishing in Senate in limbo is a source of anger at Foggy Bottom.

“It’s really paralyzing,” one senior State Department official said Thursday on the condition of anonymity. “You can’t really do your job until Congress says you can.”

Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in an interview that “the State Department needs its full team in place to conduct our nation’s foreign policy. Without our complete slate of personnel, we wrongly convey that U.S. diplomatic efforts are not a priority.”

Mr. Pompeo’s irritation on the matter burst to the surface last week, when, during a briefing with reporters on an unrelated matter, he suddenly accused Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of engaging in a scheme to “hold back” the confirmations.

Mr. Menendez shot back Tuesday, saying in a statement that the Trump administration’s “continued inability to adequately or appropriately fill key national security positions puts our nation at risk.”

Democrats argue that Mr. Pompeo’s claim that 65 department nominees have been blocked overstates the size of the backlog and that the Republican leadership in the committee and the full Senate bear much of the blame. Some of Mr. Pompeo’s picks also face serious questions about their qualifications, Mr. Menendez argued in a memo last week as the controversy bubbled up.

“The fact is this administration does not like to be called out for nominating people who are of questionable fitness to serve in the U.S. government and to represent this country around the world,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo responded late Wednesday with a furiously worded statement of his own. “Astonishingly and shamefully, Senator Menendez blamed the administration for a lack of confirmed nominees,” the secretary of state said.

“These outstanding candidates remain unconfirmed because Sen. Menendez and some of his colleagues are using our nominees as a political football,” Mr. Pompeo said. “This is unacceptable. The ‘risk’ to the nation lies at the feet of Sen. Menendez. … I call on [Mr. Menendez] and his colleagues to stop this delay and obstruction now.”

McConnell’s role

Democrats on Capitol Hill blamed the holdup in confirmation votes on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“Mitch McConnell controls the Senate floor and decides when those nominees get confirmed,” Mr. Menendez said Thursday in a statement.

Mr. McConnell has remained mum on the issue, but Capitol Hill insiders say the majority leader has less power over the matter than Mr. Menendez claims. Under Senate rules, the minority party can hold up votes on each nominee simply by having a single senator raise objection to any motion for a confirmation vote.

The likelihood of such objections is high in the current political climate. Although Mr. McConnell could try to force through each individual confirmation vote, he has been treading carefully out of concern that the process could grow even more antagonistic and because individual votes would eat up valuable time on the Senate floor.

Each vote would require 30 hours of debate time under Senate rules — a number that could spiral quickly to an unmanageable limit if individual votes are required for each of the 49 nominees awaiting confirmation.

Critics also note that the Trump administration still has not nominated anyone for several key ambassadorial posts and other high-level management positions traditionally filled by political appointees.

No one, for instance, has been nominated to be ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a key multilateral organization that past administrations have leaned on to counter China. Many of the 35 country ambassadorships that remain without a nominee are considered smaller and less essential posts, but several key powers — including Australia, Egypt and Mexico — are without a Trump-appointed full-time ambassador.

In the raging diplomatic dispute over the fate of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist who disappeared in Istanbul, the State Department does not have a permanent, confirmed ambassador in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Most of these countries have career diplomats in place to oversee operations on an interim basis.

In Turkey, for instance, the position of charge d’affaires — essentially acting ambassador — was filled in August by Jeffrey Hovenier, a career Foreign Service officer with a long list of postings.

A similar situation is at play in Mexico, where John Creamer, also a career Foreign Service officer, has been charge d’affaires since July. But more than a dozen other ambassador-level and higher management posts remain empty — not because Mr. Trump has failed to sign off on nominees, but because he has signed off only to have the nominations languish in the Senate.

‘Textbook example’

One official told The Times on Thursday that a “textbook example” is Kimberly Breier, a longtime Latin America specialist who has worked on U.S. foreign policy from both inside and outside the government, including as a member of the intelligence community for many years.

Back in March, Mr. Trump nominated Ms. Breier to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, overseeing matters including Venezuela sanctions and programs countering Chinese and Russian influence across Central and South America.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a June 13 hearing on Ms. Breier’s nomination, during which the committee swiftly agreed to “favorably” move her nomination forward. That was four months ago. It was not until Thursday night that her confirmation was pushed through the full Senate.

“Kim Breier’s been in limbo for some time now,” one State Department official told The Times, suggesting that Senate Democrats are delaying votes in hopes the nominees will eventually tire of the uncertainty and withdraw.

David Schenker, a prominent Middle East specialist in the George W. Bush administration and now an Arab politics analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, was nominated by Mr. Trump in April to become assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing in June, but there has been no full vote on confirmation.

Prior to Thursday night, the same was true for Kevin Sullivan, Francisco Palmieri and Karen Williams, nominees for ambassadorships in Nicaragua, Honduras and Suriname, respectively. They all got committee hearings more than six weeks ago but haven’t been brought up for full Senate votes.

There has still been no full Senate vote for Mr. Palmieri.

“These candidates are quality candidates,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters on Oct. 3. “They are not sitting on the Senate floor because of objections with respect to their quality, their professionalism, or their excellence and their ability to deliver American foreign policy.”

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