Several of President Joe Biden’s nominees to serve in key diplomatic and development posts for the Middle East are stalled in the Senate amid Republican holds on State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) positions.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday voted to advance the nomination of Barbara Leaf, the former US ambassador to the UAE who currently sits on Mr Biden's National Security Council, to serve as the State Department’s top Middle East diplomat.
The committee vote sends her nomination to the full Senate floor alongside that of career diplomat Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel as the envoy for Japan.
But the committee vote will not guarantee Ms Leaf — or any of her other fellow nominees — an expeditious confirmation vote given multiple holds on the Senate floor on dozens of other State Department nominations.
The Senate did confirm Thomas Nides as ambassador to Israel by voice vote late on Wednesday — a day after after Republican Josh Hawley blocked his confirmation on the floor alongside seven other nominees.
Mr Hawley’s initial reasons for blocking the Nides confirmation, and his subsequent reversal, remain unclear as his office did not reply to The National’s request for comment.
And Republican Ted Cruz alone has also blocked dozens of other State Department nominees from receiving voice votes on the Senate floor over the Biden administration’s refusal to place sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The committee vote on Wednesday ended with Mr Cruz and Democratic Chairman Bob Menendez arguing heatedly in a tense breach of decorum in large part because of the Texas senator’s continued opposition to Ms Leaf's nomination and his blanket hold on the dozens of other State Department nominees.
Mr Cruz accused Ms Leaf of “direct and deliberate falsehood” during her written answers to his questions as part of her confirmation process, while Mr Menendez accused the Texas Republican of grandstanding for another presidential run.
Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee have also delayed confirmation hearings for other nominations, including that of Tamara Wittes to serve as the top USAID administrator for the Middle East and Deborah Lipstadt to serve as the special envoy for combating anti-Semitism.
James Risch, the top Republican on the committee, said the minority party is closely scrutinising Ms Wittes’s previous tweets because of a post she made last year that was critical of the Abraham Accords.
And while Mr Risch called Ms Leaf “a qualified career diplomat” who “is well suited to lead” the State Department’s Middle East bureau, he joined fellow Republicans Ron Johnson, John Barrasso and Bill Hagerty in voting against advancing her nomination out of committee.
“I have major concerns where the administration seems to be going with its Middle East policy,” Mr Risch said before the vote.
He also expressed opposition to a recent deal to help ameliorate Lebanon’s fuel crisis by exporting Egyptian natural gas through Syria, which has received tacit approval from the Biden administration.
“I'm seriously concerned by the growing number of countries across the region and the current administration’s seeming openness to normalising relations with [Syria's Bashar Al] Assad regime,” Mr Risch said.
The Biden administration has argued that the pipeline will not violate a stringent Syria sanctions law, prompting a sceptical Mr Risch to call for details on the State Department’s legal argument for not applying sanctions.
“I also hope that Ambassador Leaf, if confirmed, will seek to restore confidence in the department’s long-term diplomatic commitment to the region following the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said.
While Mr Risch's vote against Ms Leaf's nomination centred on the Biden administration's broader Middle East policy, Mr Cruz made clear that his opposition to her confirmation is much more personal.
Mr Cruz initially held Ms Leaf’s nomination over her written answers concerning Egypt, Iran and the Abraham Accords.
He continued to raise those objections after the committee vote, suggesting that Ms Leaf will join the lengthy list of State Department nominees that Mr Cruz has held up on the Senate floor.
The State Department provided Congress with a classified list of 16 political prisoners it has asked Egypt to free in exchange for unlocking $130 million in frozen US military aid after Mr Cruz asked Ms Leaf for more information on the Biden administration’s requests from Cairo.
Despite receiving the names, Mr Cruz complained that “the only reason that document is classified is because the administration doesn’t want me reading the names in this area".
Mr Cruz’s Iran question for Ms Leaf stipulated that the Biden administration was considering what the senator characterised as “less-for-less” concessions to Iran to partially revive the nuclear deal.
He has also accused Ms Leaf of giving false testimony for stating in her written answers that: “There have been no such arrangements, deals or agreements contemplated to reduce pressure on Iran.”
Lastly, Mr Cruz continues to demand that Ms Leaf or the State Department hand over reported guidance instructing its employees not to use the term Abraham Accords to discuss normalisation agreements between Israel and Arab countries such as the UAE, which were brokered by former president Donald Trump.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken and several other State Department officials used the term Abraham Accords multiple times last month during a trilateral meeting the secretary hosted with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
And while Republicans did allow the confirmation of Jeff Flake, a former senator from their party, as ambassador to Turkey by voice vote last week, Mr Biden still needs the Senate to confirm numerous other national security nominees.
The frequent Republican objections to voice votes for most nominees will continue to force Democrats to devote days of valuable floor time needed to hold recorded votes to confirm candidates such as Ms Leaf and Mr Nides.
“It's November and we don't have ambassadors to most of the countries of the world,” noted Democrat Chris Coons after the Wednesday vote.