Senate moving fast on an ambassador to Russia


John Tefft faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a hearing on his nomination as U.S. ambassador to Russia. The full Senate is expected to vote on confirming him this week. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

A rare moment of bipartisan momentum by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has propelled the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador to Russia — a post that’s been vacant since February.

Career Foreign Service officer John Tefft didn’t have his hearing until Tuesday, but that was just a formality, because the senators had already made up their minds. In fact, it was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who asked to move Tefft unanimously “as quickly as possible.”

So after the hearing — during a full Senate vote in the evening — Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) convened committee members in a back (but not smoke-filled) room off the chamber floor for an impromptu vote with the hope that Tefft could be sent off to Moscow before Congress adjourns for five weeks.

The final vote by the full Senate is expected this week, proof that if it really, really wants to, Congress can get its work done. And quickly.

Tefft, who was formerly ambassador to Ukraine, was officially nominated by President Obama a few weeks ago, so he’s cutting the long queue of waiting ambassador noms, but everyone is in agreement that having an envoy in place in Russia should be a priority. Tefft told the senators that America’s “relations with Russia today are obviously in serious trouble, and their future is uncertain.”

Hours earlier, Menendez attempted to quickly confirm a slate of other ambassador nominees, but not enough senators were present. “We need bodies to vote, sooo . . . ,” Menendez said awkwardly, looking back and forth at the empty seats.

Unable to get a quorum, Menendez also held the votes on those ambassadors off the Senate floor.

The word from Foggy Bottom

The State Department has added a new phrase to its diplomatic lexicon: “Complete crap.”

It’s not the most artful term, but it really gets to the heart of an argument, doesn’t it?

During the daily press briefing Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked about an alleged transcript of a conversation between President Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that leaked Tuesday, wherein Obama says Israel needed to stop its military activities in Gaza. Both countries have been adamant that the transcript is a fake, saying it “bears no resemblance to reality.”

Or, as Harf put it, “it’s complete crap.”

The reporter begins to continue the question before laughing and asking, as if not sure he heard right, “complete crap?”

“Complete crap, yes,” Harf said.

“That’s a diplomatic term?”

“That’s a technical term there,” Harf said.

While we cannot confirm that this is the first use of “complete crap” as an official government statement, we can say that, according to Sunlight Foundation’s database of the Congressional Record, it’s never been used on the House or Senate floor — at least not on the record.

But maybe there’s something in the water? Just a few weeks ago, according to the Star-Ledger, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said criticism of him over a decision not to allow electric-car maker Tesla Motors to sell vehicles in its own showrooms was “complete crap.”

The blue-slip blues

The administration naturally likes to point to the drop in unemployment, to 6.1 percent today from 10.2 percent in 2009, though there’s still a ways to go to get to what might be called full employment.

But one small segment of the workforce is doing a bit better : the 179-member federal appellate bench.

On Jan. 1, 2009, before Obama took office, there were 13 vacancies on the appeals courts, according to University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman, an authority on the circuit courts. On Jan. 1, 2013, just as the president was starting his second term, there were 16 appellate vacancies.

There are now eight vacancies, and one nominee “will almost certainly be confirmed, leaving only seven vacancies,” Hellman says. So the vacancy rate will have been cut about in half, he notes, down to about 4 percent, with some of the decline attributable to the “nuclear option,” reducing filibusters on most nominees. It’s the lowest rate since 1990, we’re told.

The vacancy total might have been reduced further, but for GOP senators’ success in blocking potential White House picks in Texas, Pennsylvania and other states before they were even nominated.

Under a century-old Senate tradition called the “blue slip,” both home-state U.S. senators must agree to a judicial nominee before that person can get a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has been disinclined to change that rule.

“The blue slip,” Leahy told us in a statement, “is just a piece of paper and could be eliminated today, but that would not change the importance of home state senators’ support for confirming judicial nominees to the states they represent.”

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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