The former Obama White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was among more than 30 ambassadors and other Biden nominees confirmed by the Senate early on Saturday.
The Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, broke a Republican-stoked logjam by agreeing to schedule a vote on sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany.
With many senators anxious to go home for the holidays, Schumer threatened to keep the Senate in for as long as it took to break a logjam on a number of diplomatic and national security nominees.
Emanuel was confirmed to serve as ambassador to Japan by a vote of 48-21. Nominees to be ambassadors to Spain, Vietnam and Somalia were among those confirmed by voice vote after an agreement was reached to vote on Nord Stream 2 sanctions before 14 January.
The confirmation process has proved to be frustrating for new administrations regardless of party. While gridlock isn’t new, the struggle is getting worse.
Democrats have voiced concerns about holds Republican senators placed on nominees in order to raise objections about foreign policy matters that had little to do with the nominees in question. Holds do not block confirmation but they do require the Senate to undertake hours of debate.
Positions requiring confirmation can go unfilled for months even when the nominations are approved in committee with the support of both parties.
Biden officials acknowledge the president will end his year with significantly more vacancies than recent predecessors and that the slowdown of ambassadorial and other national security picks has had an impact on relations overseas.
Ted Cruz, of Texas, held up dozens of nominees at state and treasury, over objections to the waiving of sanctions targeting the Nord Stream AG firm overseeing the pipeline project. The administration said it opposed the project but viewed it is a fait accompli. It also said trying to stop it would harm relations with Germany.
Critics on the both sides of the aisle have raised concerns that the pipeline will threaten European energy security by increasing reliance on Russian gas and allowing Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable nations, particularly Ukraine.
Earlier in the week, Schumer demanded that Cruz lift all of his holds on nominees at the two departments as well as the US Agency for International Development, as part of any agreement on a Nord Stream 2 sanctions. Cruz said he was willing to lift holds on 16. The two sides traded offers on Friday.
“I think there ought to be a reasonable middle ground solution,” Cruz said.
“Let’s face it. There is little to celebrate when it comes to nominations in the Senate,“ said Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the foreign relations committee.
The New Jersey Democrat blamed Republicans for “straining the system to the breaking point” and depriving Biden of a full national security team, “leaving our nation weakened”.
“Something’s going to happen in one of these places and we will not be there to ultimately have someone to promote our interests and to protect ourselves,” he said.
Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said some of the gridlock stemmed back to four years ago when Democrats, under Schumer, tried to stop many of Donald Trump’s nominees being confirmed in a timely manner.
“Senator Schumer doesn’t have anything close to clean hands here,” Blunt said.
Emanuel, also a former member of the House, was backed for the post in Tokyo at a time when Washington is looking to Asian allies to help push back against China.
Detractors said they would not back him because of the shooting when he was mayor of Chicago of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who died when a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, fired multiple times.
Emanuel’s handling of the case was criticized, especially as video was not released for more than a year. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and jailed. Four officers were fired.
Biden nominated Emanuel in August. At his confirmation hearing in October, Emanuel said he thought about McDonald every day and that, as mayor, he was responsible and accountable.
Eight Republicans voted with a majority of Democrats to confirm Emanuel. Three Democrats voted no: Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.