The Senate cleared six State Department nominees on Friday, including four ambassadors, after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) removed long-standing holds against them.
The confirmations, which were done by voice vote, mean that Norway will get a U.S. ambassador after an 869-day stretch without one — and U.S. ambassadors will be heading to Sweden, Luxembourg and Trinidad and Tobago as well. The State Department will also welcome Thomas A. Shannon as its new undersecretary of state for political affairs, while Brian Egan will move into the role of legal adviser.
But several more State nominees, including President Obama’s pick to serve as ambassador to Mexico, are still waiting for their day on the Senate floor.
For several months, Cruz had been serving as a one-man roadblock to several nominations, in keeping with a promise he made over the summer to put a blanket hold on all State Department nominees. One senator can keep the Senate from confirming a nominee for almost any reason — and oftentimes, those reasons are political.
Cruz’s blanket hold on State Department nominees was a protest over the Iran nuclear pact the Obama administration negotiated. Cruz, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, vehemently opposes the Iran deal, and he has repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to rip it up if elected president.
But after seven months of opposing these nominees, Cruz’s spokesman said Friday, the senator felt like he had made his point.
“He feels he’s successfully drawn attention to what he feels is a catastrophic nuclear deal,” Cruz spokesman Phil Novack said. “These holds were not necessarily about any of these individuals in particular.”
It also helped that on Friday, the Senate approved Cruz’s bill to change the name of the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington to “Liu Xiaobo Plaza” — named after a Chinese dissident and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who is being held as a political prisoner in China. Cruz has been pressing for the name change, as a show of American solidarity with Liu, since 2014.
The long standoff over State Department nominees was frustrating for officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who even argued that the delay on confirmations was hurting the country’s ability to combat against the Islamic State.
Norway and Sweden have long been two of the countries most open to accepting refugees from war-torn areas like Syria — although in recent weeks, both countries have started taking steps to deport migrants and asylum seekers showing up on their borders. The new U.S. ambassador to Norway will be Minnesota attorney Samuel Heins — who Obama nominated after his earlier pick, George Tsunis, withdrew himself from consideration following a particularly embarrassing confirmation hearing. Former investment banker Azita Raji, an Iranian American, will be the U.S. ambassador to Sweden.
Kerry had made special appeals to the Senate to confirm the nominees they approved on Friday, as well as others who are still pending.
“To confront today’s challenges, America needs a full team on the field,” Kerry said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday. “Next step: need the #Senate to confirm Roberta Jacobson as U.S. Amb to #Mexico.”
While Cruz may be done with a blanket hold against all State Department nominees, his spokesman stressed that he retains the right to place holds on other individual nominees as they arise. Novack would not say how many other holds Cruz has placed on pending nominees.
But Cruz is not the only lawmaker who has been objecting to certain State Department nominees. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination, renewed his objection to Jacobson’s nomination just this week.
Jacobson, currently the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, has drawn opposition from certain lawmakers because of her role negotiating a thawing of relations with Cuba. Rubio staunchly opposes the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, and has promised to roll it back on the campaign trail.
Objections against other nominees for senior administration positions remain as well. Republicans have kept the Senate from voting to confirm Adam Szubin as treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, while several Democrats still object to installing Robert Califf as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.