POLITICS

GOP Stalling Leaves National Security Posts Unfilled Even As ISIS Worries Grow

The Army, the Air Force and the agency tackling terror funding are all missing top officials.
Gayle Smith was nominated to lead USAID on April 30, 2015, but has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Gayle Smith was nominated to lead USAID on April 30, 2015, but has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

WASHINGTON -- Several top U.S. government positions related to security and foreign policy have been officially empty for months because of congressional disputes. Now, after last week's tragedy in Paris, it looks like that might finally change.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday announced a renewed push to have their chamber confirm Obama administration nominees for those posts, saying the Islamic State-linked violence in France, which claimed 129 lives, has showed that the delay has gone on too long.

In a conference call with reporters, they highlighted the many holds placed on Obama administration nominees working on national security. These holds should be seen not just as political maneuvers but as direct hits at the readiness of the U.S. to withstand global terror, the lawmakers argued.

"We should be fighting ISIS with all hands on deck, not with one hand tied behind our back," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 in the Democratic leadership and presumptive future leader of the party in the Senate. 

Senators have the ability to place holds on administration nominees even after the relevant Senate committees responsible for the nominees' agencies have approved them. Obama opponents are big fans of the tactic. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for instance, said over the summer that he would block any nominees for State Department positions to protest the administration's nuclear agreement with Iran -- and he has, as a consequence, left the U.S. Agency for International Development leaderless even as worsening humanitarian issues like the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis lead to human suffering and threaten the U.S. and its allies.

Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in the call that Republican leadership now appeared willing to move forward on holding a full Senate confirmation vote for Gayle Smith, the USAID nominee, by the Monday after Thanksgiving. Her work managing U.S. development work abroad is key to encouraging global stability, Cardin said.

While the news regarding Smith and USAID suggests some progress, Schumer described it as "just one step for now."

"I think and hope and pray Republicans might be realizing their stalling on national security nominations puts our country at risk," the New York senator said.

The Democrats indicated there was still no news on the other nominee they see as especially essential to the battle against ISIS -- Adam Szubin, the veteran sanctions architect tapped in April to be undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes.

"He leads the charge to choke off ISIS funding," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the ranking member on the panel responsible for the Treasury Department, the Banking Committee. Sanctions on ISIS facilitators and income streams are key to undercutting the group's ability to buy arms and pay fighters.

Szubin's path to fully take over his position -- he currently holds the role in an acting capacity, which Schumer said diminishes his ability to enact change or command authority while negotiating sanctions regimes with international partners -- also appears troubled because of the Iran deal.

Other unfilled positions include those of the secretary of the Army, the undersecretary of the Air Force and the ambassadorships to multiple countries.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a top Democratic leader, blasted the Republican stalling as a challenge to Americans' sense of security.

"The American people need to know it's all hands on deck," she said.

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