The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats vow to advance Biden nominee with Russia expertise as GOP Sen. Hawley slows Senate process

‘It’s time for politics to take a back seat here,’ said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) of moving forward on the Pentagon nomination as Russia masses troops at the Ukraine border

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in Washington on Feb. 10. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Democrats, intent on overcoming objections by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), on Monday vowed to press ahead to secure the Senate confirmation of one of President Biden’s nominees, a Pentagon pick whose expertise on Russia would be critical amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

On Thursday, Hawley objected to quick consideration of Celeste Wallander, CEO of the U.S.-Russia Foundation and former senior director on Russia for the Obama administration’s National Security Council. Biden has tapped Wallander to serve as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

Hawley, a harsh critic of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, has blocked quick action on several of Biden’s Pentagon nominees as he seeks answers about the administration policies.

“Senators have the right to object,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in a statement to The Washington Post on Monday. “They also have a responsibility to America’s national security interests, particularly when Russia is massing troops in Eastern Europe. It’s time for politics to take a back seat here.”

The effort last week to get Wallander confirmed along with two other Pentagon nominees — David Honey to be the deputy undersecretary for research and engineering and Melissa Dalton to serve as the assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security affairs — was led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

Shaheen, in an interview with The Post on Monday, condemned Hawley’s efforts to slow Wallander’s confirmation, accusing him of putting national security at risk when Russia is encroaching on Ukrainian territory. Shaheen said senators have the right to hold up nominees if there are questions about qualifications but that Hawley’s blanket delay “is just unprecedented.”

“He’s interested in grandstanding, not in getting answers,” Shaheen said, noting that the Senate passed a defense bill in December that includes a commission tasked with investigating what happened in Afghanistan.

Hawley’s suggestion that Democrats “who supported that commission like myself, don’t want answers on Afghanistan is just insulting,” she said.

On the Senate floor on Thursday, Hawley accused the Biden administration of not moving fast enough to bolster Ukraine. The GOP senator also suggested the administration’s actions in Afghanistan emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin and “other dictators around this world.”

“What accountability has there been in this time? Who has been relieved of duty? Who has been shown the door? What have we learned?” said Hawley, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee. “The answer is there’s been no accountability.”

In a statement to The Post Monday, Hawley doubled down on his criticism of the administration.

“As Joe Biden’s incompetence leads Europe closer to war, Dr. Wallander seems to think we should keep doing more of the same in Europe, including bringing Ukraine into NATO, which will mean more and more American troops,” said Hawley, who opposes any effort to admit Ukraine into NATO and insists the focus should be on China.

This month, the White House accused Hawley of “parroting Russian talking points” based on his comments about Ukraine and NATO.

A spokesman for Hawley noted that Wallander’s nomination had been pending in the Armed Services Committee since June of last year, raising questions about the demands now for expediency.

At her confirmation hearing last month, Wallander was critical of the Obama-Biden administration’s handling of Ukraine during Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, saying the U.S. response was “too slow and incremental.”

Hawley’s opposition to quick confirmation of Wallander means the nomination will have to go through additional procedural steps by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Shaheen said she hasn’t yet spoken to Schumer about what he will do, though she will try again to get unanimous consent to move quickly on the nomination.

Schumer filed cloture Monday night on all three nominations. The Senate is expected to vote on their confirmations Wednesday.

“This is a time when, as we’ve heard for months now, there is every effort to do everything possible in the diplomatic realm to address Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, and to the extent that Senator Hawley is preventing us from having the qualified competent people in place to address the issues right now, he is putting in danger our national security and our ability to address what’s happening on the ground in Europe,” Shaheen said.