Politico

Texas hold ’em: Biden aides push Cruz to lift ‘death grip’ on nominees


The secretary of State is lighting up Capitol Hill phone lines. His underlings are using committee hearings and private exchanges to raise alarms. An outside letter-writing campaign is not out of the question. And if things get really bad, President Joe Biden himself may have to say something.

But will any of this growing pressure move Sen. Ted Cruz to stop blocking the confirmations of State Department nominees? An increasingly frustrated Biden administration is simply not sure.

Nearly seven months since he took office, only 10 of Biden’s State Department nominees have been confirmed. Dozens more, including some 60 would-be ambassadors, face what one person familiar with the situation called Cruz’s “death grip.” Other senators have put holds on nominees, but none has enforced such a blanket block without an easy path through it as Cruz.

The Texas Republican is blocking State Department nominees en masse because he is upset that Biden waived some sanctions related to Nord Stream 2, a Russian-German energy pipeline project that the United States has long opposed.

Cruz has used a mix of procedural moves in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and on the full chamber’s floor to delay the confirmation process and needle the administration. His actions have two effects: They either delay nominees’ votes, like when Cruz held over a batch of Biden picks from a SFRC business meeting on July 28 to another on Aug. 4. Or they outright block the full Senate from finally confirming a nominee.

Cruz also has been vocal about his intentions, leading to intense negotiations between him, his staff and administration officials.

In some cases, he has avoided escalating the fight. For example, Cruz used procedural plays to delay decisions on two key positions, consular affairs and diplomatic security — including in a spat with SFRC Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But he did not try to block those two nominees from being confirmed by the full Senate on Monday night.

Cruz isn’t backing down from the broader battle, though. “Americans and people across the world understand the importance of halting the Biden-Putin pipeline,” a senior Cruz staffer told POLITICO. The aide wouldn’t say if there’s anything the administration can offer the lawmaker to lift the holds short of imposing all of the sanctions on Nord Stream 2.

Administration officials have been in “constant, near-daily” contact with Cruz and his staffers, in hopes of getting more nominees through before the Senate break for its August recess, a senior State Department official said. But Cruz has resisted the administration’s main argument: that his recalcitrance is damaging to U.S. national interests and national security.

“The Senate is built on this idea of mutuality and shame,” the senior State Department official said. “If someone doesn’t have that sense of shame about essentially kneecapping an important national security agency, there’s no magic button that you can push.”

Administration officials describe the Cruz holds as highly unusual given that they target an entire department and revolve around a policy dispute, not the senator’s reservations about a particular nominee.

Overall, Biden has nominated 405 people for Senate-confirmable positions across the government, including the State Department. Of those, 288 are still awaiting confirmation, far more than his modern predecessors. Before Biden, and dating back to Bill Clinton, no president had more than 178 nominees awaiting confirmation at this stage. (That was Donald Trump.)

Historically, many State Department nominees — especially career U.S. diplomats tapped for ambassadorships — have been confirmed as part of packages that sail through the Senate ahead of August recess. The date for the recess this year remains a close but still moving target.

Getting around Cruz, however, will require Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to spend precious floor hours pushing through State nominees, time he’d rather spend getting other parts of the president’s domestic agenda through Congress. It was Schumer who blew past Cruz’s hold to confirm Bonnie Jenkins as the undersecretary of State for arms control by forcing a vote on the nomination.

A senior Senate GOP aide wished Schumer would spend more time on this issue. “So many State nominees need floor time, and only the leader can make that happen,” the aide said. But a Senate Democratic staffer pointed a finger at the Texas lawmaker. “I think the sentiment [in the Senate] is Ted Cruz is responsible for Ted Cruz,” the staffer told POLITICO.

Administration officials warn the situation is unsustainable.

“This is unprecedented that we would have to negotiate every single one on an individual basis, and it’s going to take years if that’s the case,” the senior State Department official said.

Several Republicans have expressed sympathy with the administration, the official said, naming Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and James Risch (R-Idaho) in particular. The administration also is in touch with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, about easing the nominees’ path.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to Cruz.

The Texas Republican has relented at times. Recently, after a personal appeal from Menendez, Cruz lifted his hold on Jose Fernandez, who was confirmed as the undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, the State Department official and the person familiar with the situation said.

But Cruz is adamant that Biden’s decision to end sanctions on the pipeline is a historically bad one, arguing that it gives Russia more influence in Central Europe and hurts Ukraine financially. Nord Stream 2 is over 90 percent complete, and he’s worked closely with both parties in Congress to ensure it doesn’t reach 100 percent. That’s why Cruz continually says publicly and privately that he’ll maintain the holds until Biden imposes all of the congressionally mandated sanctions on the pipeline.

Biden explained his pipeline decision during a July press conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “[B]y the time I became president, it was 90 percent completed,” he said, “and imposing sanctions did not seem to make any sense. It made more sense to work with the chancellor on finding out how she’d proceed based on whether or not Russia tried to, essentially, blackmail Ukraine in some way.”

That doesn’t satisfy Cruz, and he’s pushing the president to change his mind. The administration “has repeatedly said their waiver of sanctions can be rescinded. Well, good. [They’ve] laid out the path forward: Rescind the waiver and actually follow the law,” Cruz told POLITICO in his Senate office last month. “And when they rescind the waiver, I will happily lift my holds. State has it within their power to lift the holds any time they want.”

Some critics, though, believe Cruz is positioning himself as the chief Biden antagonist on foreign policy, a moniker he can use during a possible 2024 presidential run.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been calling lawmakers to encourage them to help the nominees get through; Blinken also used a press conference last week to urge that the confirmation process be sped up.

During a Senate hearing last week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the State Department was “hamstrung” without all of its people in place. Other State Department officials also are using their contacts with senators to press the issue.

Administration officials wouldn’t rule out the possibility of asking for outside help — such as letter-writing campaigns from NGOs that often help galvanize public opinion around such issues. They also didn’t discount the possibility of Biden making a comment at some point. It was not clear if the president has been weighing in behind the scenes at the Senate, his longtime professional home.

Biden administration officials stressed that several of the nominees that have been confirmed have had little to no opposition in the final vote. They also insisted that the Biden administration’s nominees are, for the most part, not partisan warriors the way many of Trump’s were. (That being said, the Trump administration expressed fury at what it viewed as slow-rolling of nominees by Menendez and other Democrats.)

The hope is that, if nominees continue to pile up and critical national security positions remain unfilled, Cruz will feel more public pressure to release the holds.

“To some extent it’s sort of been under the radar,” the senior State Department official said. “Sen. Cruz has been holding all State Department nominees for many months, but it hasn’t been sort of in the public consciousness that he’s doing that.”

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