WASHINGTON — Accused of throwing a “tantrum” over President Joe Biden’s refusal to block a Russian gas pipeline that Germany and other U.S. allies want, Sen. Ted Cruz relented — slightly — in his monthslong effort to squeeze the administration by stonewalling every State Department nominee.
On Tuesday, the day after Cruz dropped his hold on three of about 80 nominees, the nation’s top diplomat pleaded with the Senate to confirm the rest.
“It is essential that we accelerate the process for national security appointments since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In a tense confrontation with Blinken, Cruz accused the Biden administration of trying to deflect blame for failures in Afghanistan, where the extremist Taliban routed the U.S.-backed government in mere weeks and U.S. forces left behind some 64,000 machine guns, 33 Blackhawk helicopters and 16,000 night vision goggles.
“We will see American blood spilled because of these colossal mistakes,” the Texas Republican said, insisting that Biden has “presided over the worst foreign policy catastrophe in a generation… Just like Jimmy Carter owns the disaster of the Iran hostage crisis, you own this.”
Pressure has built on Cruz to relent.
And he did, partially, by allowing confirmation Monday of assistant secretaries of state whose jobs entail overseeing Afghanistan and intelligence, saying he did so because both are “directly related to trying to clean up the mess, the disaster, the Biden administration has created in Afghanistan.”
But he said on the Senate floor, “None of the nominees I have holds on would have made one difference in what happened in Afghanistan.”
He also stepped aside to allow confirmation of an assistant secretary to oversee Latin America and the Caribbean, though he blocked a fourth nominee for a top post at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is helping Haiti recover from a devastating earthquake.
“It is scandalous that these nominees and many others are being held up for reasons completely unrelated to them and the positions they will hold. Such irresponsible behavior jeopardizes our national security,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
Just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 57% of President George W. Bush’s picks for key national security posts had been confirmed.
The 9/11 Commission later identified that as a dangerous vulnerability, calling on future presidents and Senates to avoid such prolonged vacancies.
Yet the situation now is far worse, according to an analysis from the Partnership for Public Service, which helps new administrations get organized and tracks presidential appointments.
“Today, only 26% of the State Department’s Senate-confirmed positions are filled,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, noted during a House hearing Monday with Blinken. “This isn’t because President Biden hasn’t presented nominees. It’s because a single senator has thrown a tantrum and blocked these nominees from getting a vote and prevented national security positions from being filled.”
The Democratic National Committee pointed out that Cruz fully supported the deal former President Donald Trump cut with the Taliban for a U.S. withdrawal, even as recently as April.
No one is more performative than @TedCruz. He supported the withdrawal plan under Trump. He supported the withdrawal in April. But if there's a chance to score political points in front of a camera you can count on Ted Cruz to show up.— DNC War Room (@DNCWarRoom) September 14, 2021
Cruz rejected the intimation that his holds have undermined national security.
“The reality is that had these nominees been confirmed in August, they would have done nothing to stop the administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said.
Even as he relented on some of the State Department nominations, Cruz added a new blockade, threatening to indefinitely block five nominees for top Treasury Department spots — unless the Biden administration blacklists Nord Stream 2 AG, the Russian company managing the pipeline project.
The Biden administration has sanctioned a number of other entities involved in Nord Stream 2, but not the company managing the project.
Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian energy giant, said Friday that construction is now complete, leaving only regulatory approval as the final hurdle. The pipeline allows Russia to bypass Ukraine in selling gas to Western Europe, stirring fears the Kremlin will use it as a geopolitical weapon.
Biden has argued since taking office that the project was too far along to stop, and even if it could be halted through U.S. sanctions, that would antagonize Germany, a key U.S. ally that wants the pipeline.
“The administration’s so-called ‘deal’ with Germany hands Vladimir Putin a geostrategic victory, entrenches corrupt Russian influence in Europe, and drastically weakens the security of Ukraine, Poland, and other states on the frontline of Kremlin aggression,” wrote Cruz and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., senior Republican on the banking committee.
In a letter to Menendez and Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown of Ohio, they offered a deal:
If Treasury blacklists the pipeline manager, they’ll allow nominations to proceed when the banking panel votes Wednesday on two Treasury posts that oversee sanctions and financial tools used to fight terrorism.
Republicans on the banking committee have banded together to block all Treasury nominees to pressure Biden over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Cruz and Toomey argue that Biden has no legal option but to impose the sanctions they seek, because federal law requires sanctions if one Russian company is evading sanctions on behalf of another that is subject to sanctions.
“There is a way out of this impasse,” they wrote.