On July 13, the Senate Small Business Committee was unable to vote on the nomination of Dilawar Syed for deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration. All 10 Republicans boycotted the vote, denying Democrats the quorum they needed to move forward.
On July 15, the same thing happened again.
And on Tuesday, it happened again.
If confirmed, Syed would become the highest-ranking Muslim official in American history.
And like every other Muslim American in public life, he is facing questions from Republicans about his allegiances, stemming from his religious faith.
The ongoing GOP blockade of Syed shows how GOP efforts to stymie President Joe Biden’s nominees have spread to even relatively obscure positions, frustrating the White House. A far smaller percentage of Biden’s nominees have won confirmation at this point in his presidency than any of his recent predecessors in the Oval Office.
On June 30, eight of the GOP senators on the committee wrote a letter to the chair, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), expressing “serious concern” with Syed’s work as a board member for Emgage USA. The group and its political arm focus on encouraging more Muslim Americans to vote, increasing political engagement and supporting candidates.
The senators called the organization “vocally anti-Israel,” noting its support for the right for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement ― which urges the international community to isolate Israel in order to gain rights for Palestinians ― to exist. They said they wanted another hearing to ensure that his confirmation “would not jeopardize small businesses with close ties to Israeli companies or small businesses owned by Jewish Americans.”
Rand Paul (Ky.), the committee’s ranking member, and Todd Young (Ind.) were the two GOP senators who did not sign the June letter. Their offices did not return a request for comment on why.
The memo came after a staffer for Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) put together a background document on Syed, obtained by HuffPost, earlier that month. The very first line noted that Syed was born in Pakistan, and the vast majority of it focused on “very partisan positions” from Emgage ― not anything said by Syed. (Politico first reported on the memo’s existence last month.)
Many of the comments and tweets defended Palestinian human rights and stood up for Muslim lawmakers who have faced criticism. One tweet the Risch staffer highlighted simply said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) should not face death threats.
In response to written questions from senators, Syed said he does not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He also talked about his work engaging with Israeli businesses.
Cardin called the ongoing delays “ridiculous.” Asked directly if he thought Islamophobia was the root of GOP opposition, he said he could not prove it was.
“When you take a look at those nominees that have had the most trouble with Republicans, you can’t help but notice that they are, in many cases, people of color or women,” Cardin told HuffPost in a phone interview.
The Small Business Committee is not typically the site of partisan warfare. Its work during the pandemic to create the Paycheck Protection Program has often been cited as an example of bipartisanship done right. The Senate confirmed each of the past two nominees to be the deputy administrator of SBA, under the Obama and Trump administrations, by voice vote.
“I’m baffled that they would pick this nominee in this committee to do a move that is extremely political, extremely partisan,” Cardin said. “It’s so counter to all the work we’ve done together.”
Syed’s qualifications have not come into dispute. He is a businessman ― currently president and CEO of Lumiata, a health care analytics company ― who has also stepped into public service roles in both California and at the federal level, leading engagement with small businesses after the passage of the 2009 stimulus package for President Barack Obama’s administration. He is also co-founder of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC dedicated to mobilizing Asian American voters.
Republican senators have moved away publicly from focusing on Syed’s work with Emgage. HuffPost reached out to all 10 members, and none of them responded when asked if they were concerned about his affiliation with the group.
Instead, they all pointed to a joint statement saying they will oppose filling the deputy SBA job until the Biden administration commits to taking back loans given to some Planned Parenthood affiliates under the Paycheck Protection Program. The loans, handed out during President Donald Trump’s administration, were meant to help small businesses keep employees on their payroll during the pandemic.
Planned Parenthood’s affiliates are nonprofit organizations with leadership and funding structures separate from the national group, but Republicans say they are too closely tied and should not have received the money.
“It has been a successive series of things. And if one didn’t stick, they found another one. And if that didn’t stick, they found another one,” said Shekar Narasimhan, a friend of Syed’s and co-founder of AAPI Victory Fund.
“What does [Planned Parenthood] have to do with the qualifications of this person in a job that’s been unfilled for five years in an agency that everyone agrees could use his help?” he added. “So you have to then go back and ask the very simple question: What could it possibly be? ... And it’s got to be that he’s Muslim. He’s not from here. So therefore by definition, he must not be trustworthy.”
Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, also pointed out that it’s notable that Republicans are holding up Syed’s confirmation even though they went ahead and confirmed Isabel Guzman for the top SBA job months ago. Guzman passed out of committee on a bipartisan 15-5 vote.
“The only difference we see is that he’s Muslim,” Alzayat said.
Part of the reason Republicans may have shifted away from Syed’s background is that they received heavy pushback from Jewish and civil rights groups, including ones dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. Syed has received vocal and overwhelming support from these organizations.
In July, American Jewish Committee said that while it “does not normally take positions” on nominees, the “accusations around Dilawar Syed’s nomination based on his national origin or involvement in a Muslim advocacy organization are so base and unamerican that AJC is compelled to speak out.”
And Rabbi Doug Kahn wrote to the committee’s leaders about a 2013 trip to Israel that Syed was a part of, praising his participation and calling him “a friend, not an enemy of our community.”
“He was an outstanding and thoughtful questioner as a result of his desire to fully understand Israel and the region,” Kahn said. “In short, his participation was greatly valued by our delegation of community leaders and enhanced the overall experience for all.”
“We’re going to walk away from this experience being fully convinced that the Republican Party has been overtaken by a bigoted and Islamophobic mentality.”
Just last week, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to Cardin and Paul, saying that targeting nominees like Syed “for their faith, ethnicity, or place of birth, furthers the perpetual foreigner stereotype to which AAPIs are constantly subjected.”
“Republican Senators are claiming that his faith and background are disqualifying,” added CAPAC Chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). “This is bigotry plain and simple and the Senate must not have its hands tied by those who spread lies and misinformation.”
Some Republicans noted that three Democratic senators also missed the vote this week, implying that they’re also to blame for the holdup. But there’s no equivalence. All three ― John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Ed Markey (Mass.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) ― told HuffPost they strongly support confirmation and are ready to vote for Syed. And as Cardin said at the start of the meeting on Tuesday, he knew in advance that GOP senators were not going to show up.
“There was, and maybe there still is, an opportunity for Republican leaders to prove the Muslim American community that what happened under Trump was an aberration, and they’re failing at that right now,” Alzayat said. “We’re going to walk away from this experience being fully convinced that the Republican Party has been overtaken by a bigoted and Islamophobic mentality, particularly aimed at the Muslim American community. And we are committed to turning a new chapter with them, but if they won’t even hold a vote, our community will be more than mobilized in the future to make sure that we just have better representation in Congress.”
It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a Muslim American in politics who has not faced bigoted questions about their allegiances or attacks on their faith. Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, faced accusations about having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. So did Muslim members of Congress like Reps. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) are frequently accused of being anti-Semitic.
When Qasim Rashid, a Muslim attorney in Virginia, ran for public office, he faced death threats and attacks that he was sympathetic to terrorists. He received Emgage’s endorsement for his 2020 congressional run in Virginia and has interacted with Syed over the years.
“This obstructionism ― it’s really not just about Syed,” he said. “Maybe the GOP hasn’t noticed, but we’re suffering through a pandemic. We’re suffering through massive climate crises. And the SBA manages a trillion dollar portfolio to help small businesses. By denying this extremely qualified candidate a chance to do what he does best, the GOP is ultimately hurting the American people.”
And Syed is far from the only nominee facing a holdup. While the Senate is set to confirm a set of Biden nominees with a lengthy series of votes on Thursday night, other Republicans are holding up nominees for the State Department and Pentagon en masse over the administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And a crowded Senate schedule, combined with GOP delay tactics, means relatively few nominees have been confirmed.
As of Sept. 17, Biden has announced nominees for 465 Senate-confirmed jobs ― a pace that roughly matches the 498 nominated by George W. Bush and the 432 nominated by Barack Obama in the same time frame. (The slower-moving Trump administration had announced just 338 nominations.) But only 32% of Biden’s nominees have been confirmed, compared to 39% for Trump, 58% of Bush and 71% for Obama.