WASHINGTON – Senate pressure to confirm candidates for critical diplomatic posts has stopped amid objections from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is blocking all State Department candidates to pressure the Biden administration on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, four of those with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.
Thirteen candidates approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in indefinite limbo as Cruz delays full Senate confirmation in a bid to get the administration to reverse its waiver of sanctions against the company overseeing construction of the pipeline. In most cases, the candidates would fill roles unrelated to US policy towards the pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Russia to Germany.
Among those stranded are Brett Holmgren, awaiting confirmation as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence, and Daniel Kritenbrink, appointed Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs. Two assistant secretaries – some of the most senior positions in the department – are also suspended, including one who oversees human rights and democracy.
The selection of President Joe Biden for deputy secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement is also among those delayed. Cruz is also retaining candidates for ambassadorial posts in half a dozen African countries, including Somalia, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A spokesperson for Cruz referred NBC News to previous reporting on Cruz’s efforts to block State Department candidates, but did not explain why the senator maintains positions unrelated to the pipeline. The State Department declined to comment.
Cruz had previously suspended key Biden appointments over concerns about the pipeline, including CIA Director William Burns and Assistant Secretary of State Brian McKeon. But the senator eventually allowed those appointments to continue after the Biden administration said in March it would impose sanctions on companies building the pipeline.
The State Department imposed sanctions on some Russian ships and entities involved in the pipeline, but lifted them against the company behind the pipeline, much to the dismay of Republicans and Democrats who oppose the nearly complete conduit. The Biden administration has said it is in the interest of US national security to lift the sanctions, which US ally Germany opposes.
The project will double Russian gas shipments to Germany while bypassing Ukraine, whose economy relies on royalties from the gas flowing through the country. Lawmakers from both parties fear this will increase Russia’s influence over the former Soviet republic.
Other opponents of the pipeline did not join Cruz in trying to force the administration’s hand by blocking all candidates, including in critical national security positions. It’s a tactic the senator has used before, including during a disagreement with the Obama White House over the appointment of a State Department inspector general.
Senator Bob Menendez, DN.J., who chairs the foreign relations panel, lambasted Cruz last week at a committee meeting for blocking candidates.
“Sen. Cruz, this committee has a long history that you blacken by turning committee business into political gain,” Menendez said.
Asked by Cruz what this could be used for, Menendez added: “It may be your presidential aspirations, I don’t know.”
An individual senator cannot permanently block a candidate, but can use Senate rules to force procedural steps that are often overlooked for less controversial choices. This may delay the confirmation of these candidates indefinitely given the many priorities competing for precious and limited time in the Senate.
The lockdowns come as the Biden administration has been slow to fill key ambassadorial posts, lagging behind the pace set by some previous administrations due to delays in verification and selection. The extended pace has raised concerns about Biden’s ability to achieve his goal of reasserting American leadership in the world, a role his administration says the former Trump administration ceded to other nations.
Dan De Luce, Andrea Mitchell and Frank Thorp V contributed.