The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s SBA nominee would be the country’s highest-ranking Muslim. The GOP won’t let him get a vote.

Dilawar Syed, a Pakistani American entrepreneur, would be the government's highest-ranking Muslim if confirmed. (Eric Risberg/AP)

A little-known nomination for an uncelebrated position in a small domestic agency has stirred a controversy mixing international relations and abortion politics that are unrelated to the now stymied nominee.

President Biden’s pick of Dilawar Syed as Small Business Administration (SBA) deputy administrator also has created strange bedfellows. Jewish organizations are among a diverse coalition defending Syed, who would be the highest-ranking Muslim in government, against antisemitism allegations from Republicans. His backers recently denounced the GOP claims as “flagrant anti-Muslim animus surrounding Mr. Syed’s historic nomination.” One list of more than 200 Syed supporters includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which often supports GOP positions, and the National Small Business Association.

In the face of various Republican complaints, related or not to Syed, his selection has languished in the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee for months — after his nomination was approved by a committee voice vote that was overturned by the Senate parliamentarian.

Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said repeated efforts to hold a roll-call vote have been blocked by Republicans because of their “constantly shifting” reasons for boycotting meetings. On Tuesday, when the latest vote was scheduled, committee Republicans reposted a July tweet that said, “We will not allow a vote on SBA’s nominee for Deputy Administrator until the SBA takes action to recover the wrongfully acquired PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] funds by Planned Parenthood entities.”

The SBA-backed PPP funds are designed to help businesses keep their employees working during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a key actor in Syed’s stalled nomination drama, have argued the $80 million the Trump administration provided Planned Parenthood affiliates was improper because the organization “is a multi-billion-dollar company” too large to qualify for the loans. In response, Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Cardin, said Planned Parenthood affiliates with fewer than 500 employees are eligible and criticized the “ideologically-driven action against Planned Parenthood organizations.”

Lengthy standoffs like this can result in a president withdrawing a nomination or a nominee deciding it’s not worth the frustration. So far, Biden is sticking with Syed, a Pakistani-born, American-educated, California-based entrepreneur in software, health care and artificial intelligence. He can’t speak for himself because, as is customary, the White House does not let nominees give interviews while they are under consideration.

“Dilawar Syed is well-qualified to serve as deputy administrator of the SBA, which has been critical in providing relief to small businesses in the midst of the pandemic,” Christopher Meagher, a White House spokesman, wrote in an email. “And yet his confirmation is being held up in an unprecedented way and for no good reason by GOP members of the Committee.”

Democrats also have blocked nominations for policy reasons unrelated to an individual nominee. But the focus on Planned Parenthood is just one of three issues Republicans have used to justify their mass absence from committee meetings where Syed’s nomination would be considered. Without their presence in a committee evenly split between political parties, meetings have no quorum and cannot conduct official business. After the committee’s June 16 voice vote advancing his nomination, the parliamentarian ruled a roll-call vote was required. With the GOP boycott, the committee failed to get a quorum three times after that.

Before the Planned Parenthood issue became the Republicans’ main focus, they questioned SBA loans to a company Syed led. Statements from Cardin’s office and a White House spokesman, however, say Syed repaid the loan well before his nomination was announced though he was entitled to have it forgiven.

Then, on the eve of a scheduled June committee meeting, Cardin received a letter from eight GOP committee members that implicitly accused Syed of being anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. The letter cited his volunteer board membership with Emgage Action, a political action committee that promotes policies guided by “our faith and reflective of our Muslim American identity.”

The Republican letter said Emgage Action “released incendiary statements” after Syed’s hearing that could “jeopardize small businesses with close ties to Israel companies or small businesses owned by Jewish Americans” and “hinder the close cooperation businesses in America and Israel have.”

The letter echoed a statement two weeks earlier by Hawley that said Emgage is “an organization that has engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, including amplifying false statements that Israel is an ‘apartheid state.’ ”

But Republican attacks on Syed because of his connection with Emgage are strongly rejected by a broad coalition of groups, including Jewish organizations. An August letter led by Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish organization, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, complained “Republicans have, sadly, turned to character assassination in the form of anti-Muslim bias and bigotry to stymie his confirmation.”

A statement by the American Jewish Committee said accusations based on Syed’s ethnicity “or involvement in a Muslim advocacy organization are so base and unamerican that AJC is compelled to speak out. While AJC often disagrees with Emgage on matters related to Israel, its advocacy is done in the great American tradition of respectful public debate.”

Emgage Action rejected the GOP accusations, saying “the continued Republican opposition to Syed’s nomination is absolutely fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Though no breakthrough appears imminent, Biden and Cardin haven’t given up on Syed’s nomination. Cardin said he is discussing options with Schumer and the parliamentarian.

Meanwhile, the White House steams.

“During this critical moment for Main Street businesses across America,” Meagher said, “the GOP members of the Small Business committee will not do their jobs — show up to the committee, hold an up-or-down vote on Syed’s nomination, and get back to work on behalf of our nation’s small businesses.”

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