WASHINGTON ― Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said this week he will renew his efforts to persuade the U.S. Senate to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees for the Pentagon.
He is expected to ask Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to expend floor time to hold procedural votes to install senior Pentagon officials, in the face of delay tactics from some Republicans. The vacancies at the Pentagon would get new attention amid fresh tensions with Russia and the military’s efforts to keep pace with China technologically.
The nominations have been held up in part due to Republican opposition, an obstacle that remains. Republican Sens. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, and Ted Cruz, of Texas, indicated Thursday they will continue to force procedural votes on Biden nominees to the Pentagon and State Department ― public stands meant to highlight their criticism of Biden’s foreign policy.
The delay is affecting nine nominees who have cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee and are awaiting a vote. Few State Department and Pentagon nominees have come to the Senate floor in recent weeks as the chamber’s leadership has attempted to pass key parts of Biden’s domestic agenda.
Hours before Schumer announced Thursday night the Senate will vote Tuesday on voting rights legislation, Reed said he would lobby for the Senate to turn to nominees next.
“What we want to do … if we have to, is bring people to the floor for votes,” Reed told Defense News. “Recognizing that voting rights is the most critical issue, but once that has been resolved, I think we’re going to ask if we can get access to the floor and then start moving these [nominees].”
Before the holiday break, Cruz struck a deal with Schumer to use the unanimous consent process to confirm 32 noncontroversial ambassadors and senior State Department officials. In exchange, the Senate held a vote Thursday on Cruz’s bill to levy sanctions aimed at Nord Stream 2, a system of gas pipelines from Russia to Europe.
After the Senate voted down the bill, Cruz told reporters he will continue to call for votes on other unspecified nominees until Democrats “stop surrendering to Russia.”
“There are I believe roughly 10 holds in place right now,” Cruz said. “I would certainly anticipate more will be forthcoming as additional nominations come down the pike. But I am also very happy to continue lifting holds in exchange for progress stopping Russia’s aggression.”
Whether similar deals will be made to clear a path for other nominees is not immediately clear.
Hawley, who has said he will maintain his own holds until Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other top administration officials resign over the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, said Thursday he and Reed had some tentative discussions to resolve his holds.
“My commitment remains that I want to get some accountability on the Afghanistan situation and, until we can do that, then I’m going to make us vote on senior leadership positions,” Hawley said.
Asked if the conversations were aimed at a compromise, Reed said the recently passed defense policy bill already establishes a commission to study the Afghanistan war ― and indicated he disagrees with Hawley’s approach.
“I’ve talked to Josh, and he’s a very thoughtful member, a very positive contributor to the committee, but I just don’t think we can treat national security, DoD nominees, as trading bait for other things, even if they have a tinge of national security,” Reed said.
Of 64 Pentagon positions that require Senate confirmation, the Senate has confirmed 25 of Biden’s nominees, 21 are waiting for action in the Senate and three nominees have been announced but not formally nominated. No nominee has been announced for eight open positions, including the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
Under the Trump administration, the White House expressed frustration about the Senate’s slow pace of confirming nominees to fill key roles. Democrats argue those delays were about individual nominees and their qualifications, rather than blanket holds.
“That did not happen during the Trump administration. There were no wholesale holds,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democrats and Republicans have decried the delays as harmful to national security.
“It’s interesting: The same people who are complaining about our posture vis a vis Russia and other threats are the same people who are holding up our ability to have people in place who can do the job,” Shaheen said. “I think it’s unfortunate, because those [nominees] are the people we need to protect American interests around the world.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.