The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Here’s what Ted Cruz wants in return for unblocking Biden’s nominations

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Placeholder while article actions load

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1973, President Richard Nixon demanded the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William B. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than do so. Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order. It’s the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

The big idea

This is what Ted Cruz wants to unblock Biden's nominations

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) expects to be formally delaying up to 40 of President Biden’s nominees by week’s end, but they won’t include former colleagues Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) or Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Cruz has been stalling Biden picks — chiefly for ambassadorships and some senior State Department postings, but also choices for jobs at the Treasury Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development — for leverage in disputes with the administration over policies toward Russia and the Middle East.

The tactic isn’t new.

But the scale and scope of Cruz’s embargo seems unprecedented: It targets not just political appointees but career diplomats with unrelated briefs, some heading to unglamorous posts, like Larry Edward Andre, Jr., whom Biden nominated as envoy to Somalia and whose nomination reached the floor in June.

The politics

Setting aside the policy questions, the Texas Republican benefits politically from taking a high profile-role in GOP opposition to a president deeply unpopular with the party’s base — especially as a potential 2024 contender.

The Senate’s inner workings empower a senator to try to delay a nominee by formally place a “hold” on them — essentially a promise to filibuster — once they get to the floor for a final vote.

Cruz can’t block nominees forever — they can move through the confirmation process by simple majority, which Democrats have. But he can prevent them from sailing through via unanimous consent and instead force Biden’s party to endure a formal process that could take precious legislative days away from other actions, such as advancing Biden’s extensive domestic agenda.

Cruz plans to exempt McCain, Flake and Udall as a kind of senatorial courtesy, according to my colleague Seung Min Kim and an aide. The Texas Republican currently has holds on about 20 people, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a fresh batch of about 30 nominees on Tuesday, so the number of holds will grow.

The practice isn’t uncommon. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) blocked former president Donald Trump’s choice for the State Department’s top Middle East job for months in order to force that administration to turn over its legal rationale for airstrikes in Syria.

Cruz has used the tactic in the past. More aggressively, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) says he’ll try to block all of Biden’s diplomatic and defense nominees until Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resign, an outcome that could charitably be described as unlikely.

Biden’s nominees to be ambassador to China, longtime diplomat Nicholas Burns, and to Japan, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, face a confirmation hearing today but will be delayed in getting to Beijing or Tokyo unless the senator relents, or Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) carves out time to go through the formal process.

Democratic lawmakers and the White House argue the Texas senator is weakening American diplomacy and national security by keeping so many senior posts vacant, sometimes leaning on a 9/11 Commission finding that empty desks hurt the country’s ability to respond to the attacks.

“There has been, time after time, obstruction that has prevented qualified nominees from being in vital positions, whether it's in the national security roles; in the Defense Department; the State Department, where we've seen ambassadors held for weeks and months, at times; or even our economic nominees, who are unquestionably qualified but have been unable to move forward and serve in these positions,” Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

… and the policy

So what does Cruz want? As a potential 2024 contender, he’s probably not mad about headlines casting him as single-handedly gumming up the confirmation of top Biden picks, something to appeal to the GOP base.

But it’s worth looking at his stated foreign policy concerns, some of which involve momentous topics like nuclear diplomacy with Iran or the likelihood of Russia gaining massive leverage over Western Europe, while others include a spat over diplomatic language.

Cruz, joined by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), initially imposed his holds to force the administration to impose sanctions on a Russia-backed company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to ferry natural gas from Russia to Germany. Opponents to the pipeline note it will potentially give Moscow enormous sway over energy-hungry Western Europe.

The Biden administration waived sanctions on the project in late May as part of a deal with Germany, which wants the pipeline.

Cruz wants them back on, or imposed and then waived in a way that would trigger a vote on the matter in Congress, where Democrats would likely prevail but could feel some political pain. Biden is unlikely to do anything to stall the energy project.

On Tuesday, the senator let it be known he would delay Biden’s choice for the top State Department Middle East job, a National Security Council official named Barbara Leaf, because he was unsatisfied with her answers to written questions. Politico first reported the news.

Most notably, Cruz asked Leaf for details of “any arrangements, deals, or agreements that are being contemplated by the Biden administration to reduce pressure on Iran other than reentry into” the Iran nuclear deal.

Leaf responded: “There have been no such arrangements, deals, or agreements contemplated to reduce pressure on Iran.”

Cruz’s camp contends her answer is false, pointing to two Reuters articles. One, from Feb. 8, describes Biden exploring “baby steps” short of a return to full compliance with the deal, which is Biden’s official policy. Another, from July, suggests a similar approach.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told The Daily 202 late Tuesday: “Barbara Leaf’s answer is accurate. We have not contemplated reducing pressure on Iran absent a diplomatic agreement.”

Cruz is also unhappy that Leaf declined to hand over State Department documents ordering officials to substitute “normalization agreements” for “Abraham Accords” when referring to diplomatic deals between Muslim countries and Israel. Leaf does not have the power to do so until she is confirmed, but the administration could.

In response to Cruz’s request for Leaf to rewrite her answers, the administration said she would do so if he lifted all of his holds. No one's budging. Watch Schumer.

What's happening now

White House announces plan to roll out coronavirus vaccines for children ages 5-11

Though the plan is pending Food and Drug Administration approval, “White House officials said they have secured enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the country’s 28 million children in that age group,” Amy B Wang and Lena H. Sun report.

  • “An expert advisory group to the FDA is scheduled to meet Oct. 26 to hear data about the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine. The FDA will decide whether to authorize its use.”

To combat covid-19 deaths, Putin approves nationwide one-week workplace shutdown

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the shutdown, which will begin at the end of the month, could be pushed up or extended in certain areas, Reuters's Vladimir Soldatkin, Darya Korsunskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber report. “Authorities across the country have made moves to curb the spread of the virus, reflecting a growing sense of urgency as they confront widespread public reluctance to get injected with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine.”

Commerce Department announces new rule to stem sale of hacking tools to Russia and China

“The rule, which will take effect in 90 days, would cover software such as Pegasus, a potent spyware product sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group to governments that have used it to spy on dissidents and journalists,” Ellen Nakashima reports.

A rebrand for Facebook

Facebook is slated to change its company name next week, the Verge’s Alex Heath reports, “to reflect its focus on building the metaverse.”

  • “The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more.”

ACLU sues Oklahoma over restrictions on teaching gender and race theories

The suit, filed Tuesday, targets a law that educators say restricts discussions of race and sex in classrooms, Bryan Pietsch reports.

“The broad language in Oklahoma’s law leaves educators with an ‘impossible’ and unconstitutional choice: ‘avoid topics related to race or sex in class materials and discussions or risk losing their teaching licenses for violating the law,’ the ACLU said, adding that the suit is the first challenge in federal court to one of the bans.”

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Southern border arrests reach record high in 2021

Border arrests have soared to highest level ever recorded 

“U.S. authorities detained more than 1.7 million migrants along the Mexico border during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, and arrests by the Border Patrol soared to the highest levels ever recorded, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post,” Nick Miroff reports.

Key takeaways:

  • “Illegal crossings began rising last year but skyrocketed in the months after President Biden took office.”
  • “The latest CBP data indicates that the administration’s challenges extend far beyond Central America. Mexico was the single largest source of illegal migration during the 2021 fiscal year.”
  • “Border enforcement has become a major political liability for Biden, and the president’s handling of immigration remains his worst-polling issue.” Nick writes.

Lawmakers race to mimic the Texas abortion law in their own states

Texas's unique enforcement mechanism for punishing people who seek abortions after 6 weeks gestation has caught the attention of lawmakers in several other states, Caroline Kitchener reports in The Lily. “Republican legislators in other states immediately started talking about ‘copycat bills,’ a tradition that has been a hallmark of the antiabortion movement for decades. Instead of drafting legislation from scratch, they would use Texas as their inspiration, proposing a version of Senate Bill 8 in their own legislatures.”

  • “More state legislators have been sending up ‘trial balloons.’ If an unconventional bill passes through the legislature and the courts intact, other states will copy its approach.”

… and beyond

How police use force against children

In “Tiny wrists in cuffs,” the Associated Press's Helen Wieffering, Colleen Long and Camille Fassett chronicle the experiences of those often forgotten in conversations about police brutality: youth. “Kids are still an afterthought in reforms championed by lawmakers and pushed by police departments. But in case after case, an Associated Press investigation has found that children as young as 6 have been treated harshly — even brutally — by officers of the law.

  • “Black children made up more than 50% of those who were handled forcibly, though they are only 15% of the U.S. child population.”

The Biden agenda

Those with student loans, get ready to restart payments

Biden mulls how to restart student loan payments

“The Biden administration is developing plans for how it will restart federal student loan payments early next year when the pandemic pause on monthly payments for tens of millions of Americans ends,” Politico’s Michael Stratford reports.

  • “In recognition of the historic impact of a nearly two-year pause in student loan payments, borrowers will be allowed additional flexibility in the early stages of the return to repayment,” the [education] department wrote in one of the documents.

Pressure mounts for Biden to close the global vaccine gap

“Manufacturing setbacks and the prioritization of people in high-income countries have left the world facing a coronavirus vaccine deficit in the short term and inequities in the longer term,” Axios’s Caitlin Owens reports.

  • “Some of the manufacturers of more effective vaccines — primarily American companies — are falling short of production expectations or selling primarily to high-income countries.”

Coronavirus mutations, visualized

As officials in the United States are hoping the worst of the pandemic is over, so much depends on the virus itself. “Delta, the variant of SARS-CoV-2 now causing virtually all infections in the United States, is more than twice as transmissible as the virus that emerged in Wuhan, China. In recent weeks, scientists who closely monitor the virus have said it still appears to have plenty of room to evolve.

Hot on the left

The saga of pandemic response is reaching what seems to be its final possible iteration: some conservatives are now saying covid-19 is a good thing, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait writes.

The coronavirus pandemic has offered an especially grisly illustration of the pathological nature of American conservatism. President Trump initially wobbled between trying to contain the pandemic and denying it before settling on the latter posture. It therefore became a matter of loyalty for conservatives to support Trump’s claims that COVID was just the flu, that it would disappear quickly, and that the hysteria was being whipped up by his enemies in a plot to destroy his beautiful economy.”

Hot on the right

In the New York Times, columnist Thomas B. Edsall presents several researchers' takes on whether conservatives are happier than liberals.

“A wide range of scholars in a variety of disciplines are asking these questions and taking them seriously. Ultimately, though, this line of inquiry raises an even broader question: whether liberals and conservatives function on fundamentally different moral planes.”

"Schlenker, Chambers and Le found that while both liberals and conservatives place a high value on fairness, they have diverging definitions of the concept:

Liberals define fairness more in terms of equality (equal outcomes regardless of contributions) and turn to government as the vehicle for enforcing social justice and helping those in need. Conservatives define fairness more in terms of equity (outcomes should be proportional to contributions), rely on free markets to distribute outcomes, and prefer individuals and private organizations, not government, to contribute to the care and protection of those in need."


Today in Washington

At 5:15 p.m., Biden will promote his Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better Agenda at the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa. Tony Romm, Seung Min Kim and Marianna Sotomayor have the details.

In closing

Looks like Stephen Colbert took the firing of Washington State Football Coach Nick Rolovich a little literally …

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.